DETROIT — On Tuesdays at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan men’s hockey team concluded its practices with a skating drill that is akin to a foot race. It went the length of the rink and required full speed and full exertion.
Red Berenson, UM’s longtime coach, noticed something each week: Nobody could catch Luke Glendening.
It reached a point where Berenson pulled several of Glendening’s teammates aside and asked them: “Why can’t anybody beat Luke?”
“They would tell me, ‘coach, he’s a freak!’ ” Berenson recalled. “Only Carl Hagelin came close.”
Hagelin is now in the NHL. So is Glendening.
Earlier this month, the Red Wings signed Glendening to a three-year contract extension, another step in his transformation from a Division I walk-on to a professional hockey player.
Glendening split his first full season of professional hockey with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye and Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League in 2012-2013. He split the first half of this season between Grand Rapids and Detroit, and in 56 NHL games has one goal and six assists, while emerging as a defensive forward.
Glendening, 24, says what helped him at each step — and to earn a job in the NHL — was what many believe distinguished him in college and in minor-league hockey.
“You have to set a work ethic that’s unprecedented,” Glendening said. “One that surpasses other people. Obviously, I don’t have the talent or the skill level that other guys on this team do, so I have to try to overcompensate for that.”
Unlike some of his NHL teammates, the center didn’t have any notable hockey pedigree or the credentials of being a highly touted draft pick. He didn’t even have a scholarship when he first joined the Wolverines. Glendening was a workhorse, a hockey player with a football player’s mentality.
During his postgraduate year in 2007-2008 at the Hotchkiss School in northwest Connecticut, he played baseball, football, and hockey but caught the attention of Michigan assistant Billy Powers, who regularly scouted prep school hockey in New England for prospective players. Glendening wasn’t on his radar, but his prep school coach insisted that Powers give Glendening a look.
Glendening joined Michigan in 2008. He had to compete for a spot in a lineup that over his four years included several NHL prospects, including Hagelin, and several highly touted U.S. National Team Development Program products.
“Luke’s responsibilities were like everyone else’s, but Luke had to prove himself,” Berenson said. “Luke had to work his way into our lineup and he had to play honest hockey. He realized right away that nothing was going to be given to him.”
He earned scholarship money after his freshman, sophomore, and junior seasons, and he scored 31 goals and 39 assists and was a plus-57 in four seasons at Michigan. When college hockey was over, he spent three games with the AHL’s Providence Bruins on an amateur tryout, then signed a one-year AHL contract with the Grand Rapids Griffins in June, 2012.
“I wanted to keep playing, but I didn’t know what my future held,” Glendening said. “I was just trying to take it day by day, and taking every opportunity I was given. I tried to make the most of that, and learned a lot while I was doing that, from the coaches and the players.”
Just before the start of the 2012-2013 season, the Griffins sent Glendening to the Walleye. On the surface, the timing was inopportune. Former Walleye coach Nick Vitucci had already set his lines.
“But very quickly, we recognized his incredible work ethic and the very good hockey I.Q. Luke had,” Vitucci said. “It wasn’t before too long that he became a go-to guy. We said a few times that he reminded us a lot of [former Detroit center] Kris Draper, and he scored points for us but was so reliable in all kinds of situations.”
In Toledo, Glendening also learned how to handle being an adult. That meant making his own meals, doing his own laundry, monitoring his own bank account, and filling the ample free time he suddenly had.
“Sometimes that’s hard, coming from college,” Glendening said. “You have to be a pro at the rink, and also away from it. In college you have classes, you have a set schedule, they’re feeding you meals in college and when you get to be a pro, you have the whole day to do what you want. You’ve got to make sure you’re doing the things that will help your career.”
Berenson was at the Huntington Center in November, 2012, when Glendening and the Walleye faced South Carolina and former Wolverines goalie Shawn Hunwick. Glendening scored Toledo’s only goal in the 2-1 loss to the Stingrays, one of 14 he scored in 27 games.
“At that point, I could see that Luke was going to prove himself at the professional level,” Berenson said. “He probably had more goals there than he did at Michigan. But he was getting that chance, and he was taking advantage of that.”
Glendening began this season in Grand Rapids and was recalled five times before New Year’s Day. His final recall to Detroit came Dec. 31, a day before the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium, only a few blocks from where he played college hockey. Now, Glendening helps the Red Wings prepare to face the Boston Bruins, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I’ve learned so much, every step of the way,” Glendening said. “I’ve enjoyed every part of my journey, and I don’t think I’d be the player I am today without all those steps and the adversity.”