By Pat Hickey
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2009
MONTREAL – Every hockey player has a story. He might be a top draft choice, destined for stardom from the time his father built a backyard rink. Or he might be a late-round draft choice who worked his way through the minors to claim a job in the National Hockey League.
But the story of Glen Metropolit, who played in the ECHL his first two seasons, is unique. To understand how far the Canadiens’ centre has come, you have to understand where he came from.
Metropolit grew up in a single-parent family in Regent Park, a public housing project in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Toronto. He started playing hockey at a local arena when he was 8, but there was no money for travelling teams, no chance to play at the higher levels of minor hockey.
“I played high school hockey because I couldn’t afford anything else,” said Metropolit, who noted he had friends who provided him with hand-me-down skates and other equipment. “I couldn’t travel or play in the summer. It was like that for a lot of kids I knew. There were a lot of good hockey players in Regent Park, but there weren’t a lot of stable family situations and they didn’t have the means to play.”
Metropolit’s big break came when he was 17 and his closest childhood friend was invited to play for a Junior B team in suburban Richmond Hill.
“He was highly scouted for this Junior B team and he said: ‘Why don’t you try out?’ Deep down inside, I thought I was as good as him. I made the team at the last cut. My second year, I had a great year. I was 19 and I decided I couldn’t stick around Toronto anymore. All my friends started getting interested in other things, it wasn’t just hockey. You can imagine. For my own good, I needed to get my schooling up to par and stuff like that.”
That summer, Metropolit went to a camp in Guelph, where he met the head coach of the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League.
“He said: ‘Why don’t you come to B.C., get your grades up and hopefully get a scholarship (to a U.S. college),” Metropolit recalled. “I went out there, grinded hard on the books and signed a letter of intent with Bowling Green. I stayed in B.C. through June to finish school, but then I got a call halfway through the summer and I was told that my core curriculum scores weren’t high enough.”
While Metropolit had good marks in B.C., his earlier years of just getting by in Toronto dragged down his overall average.
“To tell you the truth, my high school days in Toronto weren’t that great,” he said. “There were no consequences if you missed school. The principal wasn’t going to come looking for you. You had to do it yourself. You had pregnant girls and drug dealers in your class. I just went and got my 60.”
Metropolit received another call from Tim Whitehead at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The school offered him admission under Proposition 48, but that meant he wouldn’t be able to play or practise with the team for his first year at the school.
Metropolit was determined to play hockey and received another break when his assistant coach at Vernon made a phone call and landed him a tryout with the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League.
“I went to the Atlanta camp for a week and they sent me to Nashville, which was their affiliate in the East Coast League,” Metropolit said.
He played in Pensacola, Quebec City and Grand Rapids, Mich., before landing his first NHL contract with the Washington Capitals.
“I was 24, I was one of the best players on our team in Grand Rapids and some teams expressed interest in me,” he recalled.
“I went to the draft to meet some general managers and I thought at the time that Washington was the best place for me.”
The Capitals provided Metropolit with his first taste of NHL action, and he was with the organization for four seasons. But he bounced back and forth between the Caps and their minor-league farm team in Portland, Me., and played more games in the minors (164) than in the NHL (103).
“After my third year, (coach) Ron Wilson got fired and they were going to bring in Glen Hanlon, and I thought that would be good for me because I played for him in Portland and he liked me,” Metropolit said. “But they didn’t hire him. They went with Bruce Cassidy, who coached three seasons in the ECHL, and he brought his guys and I sort of got shoved aside.”
At the same time, Metropolit’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Olivia, and he wanted to provide his young family with some stability.
“There was too much up and down, too much living in hotels” he said. “I asked for a trade, but they said I was an asset and they didn’t think they could get anything comparable for me. So I decided to go to Europe, because with the CBA at the time if you went to Europe, you could come back after one year as a free agent.”
Metropolit had offers from teams in several countries, but he chose Jokerit in the Finnish League.
“I wanted to go to a great hockey country and show the NHL that I wasn’t willing to give up,” he said. “I wanted to have a great year or two over there and then come back.”
Metropolit had a good year with Jokerit, but his plans to return to the NHL had to be put on hold because the next season was the lockout year.
Metropolit believes his second season in Finland was the turning point in his career. He was named the most valuable player in the Finnish League, but NHL teams weren’t lining up to sign him after the lockout. He moved on to Switzerland, thinking that might be the last stop on his hockey career.
“I had a good year, led the league in scoring, won a championship, went to the world championships, and that’s where (Atlanta general manager) Don Waddell saw me and offered me a contract,” he said.
For the first time in his career, Metropolit had a one-way contract, but it didn’t give him an opportunity to put down roots. The Canadiens are Metropolit’s fourth NHL team since he returned from Europe in 2006.
Atlanta traded him to St. Louis at the deadline in 2007 and the Blues didn’t offer him a contract when the season ended.
“The Blues were kind of in shambles,” Metropolit said. “They had a young team and they didn’t know which way they were going. I went to the Boston camp without a contract last season, but I knew Claude Julien from the world championships.”
Metropolit had a career season with the Bruins, playing all 82 games and recording 11 goals and 22 assists. Boston offered him a two-year contract, but he signed a similar deal in Philadelphia because he thought he would get more playing time.
“My thought process was that with (Patrice) Bergeron coming back, there goes a lot of minutes,” he explained. “I figured with Bergeron, Marc Savard and David Krejci, those three guys at centre would probably play 18 minutes apiece and that leaves only six minutes.
“I had some offers right away and I thought Philly would be a great place. Eastern Conference, I know the team, some of the players. It looked like Danny Brière was going to play wing and I was going to be the third centre. It didn’t work out, but here I am playing for a storied franchise.”
Metropolit, 34, has a year left on a contract that pays him $1 million a season and he’s hoping to stay in Montreal.
“My wife and three kids are still in Philadelphia and we’re waiting to see what happens,” he said. “They’ve been up once and I’d like to get them back here and settle down.”