The neighbourhood Glen Metropolit knows has changed quite a bit since he left Regent Park for good to embark on a hockey career two decades ago.
When Metropolit, now 40, was a teenager he saw it all. He saw crack cocaine being sold and smoked. He saw prostitution. He saw fights and he saw thefts.
“When I was a kid, Regent Park was pure energy,” Metropolit said, via a phone interview from his new hockey home in Mannheim, Germany. “I remember walking through there from the rink and I’d see men fighting, people selling drugs, bikes being stolen. It was crazy.
“It’s nothing like when I was growing up. I don’t know anybody there anymore when I come back. I dropped by the rink last summer and it was empty. All the buildings are being torn down.”
The Regent Park social housing neighbourhood was built just east of downtown Toronto in the 1940s. A few years ago work began to soften the hardscrabble area.
The gentrification – or revitalization as politicians like to call it – continues. The last of the remaining 14-story apartment buildings are being demolished. Those structures are being replaced by shiny new condominium towers. Modern townhomes are being built to replace the old townhouses.
Even Metropolit’s home away from home, the Regent Park south rink, has undergone a facelift. The city of Toronto, Hockey Canada and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment joined forces to fund the renovation. It reopened on Jan. 4 and has become a lively spot for locals to work on their shot and play shinny.
The youngsters that now have replaced Metropolit on the rink have heard of him. They know he played in the NHL. But they don’t know his entire story.
Maybe when Metropolit visits in the summer, there could be a ceremony and the rink could be named after him.
Metropolit’s hockey career has taken him from Regent Park to Vernon, B.C., Nashville (ECHL), Atlanta (IHL), Pensacola, Fla., Grand Rapids, Mich., Portland, Maine, Washington, Tampa Bay, Helsinki, Lugano, Switzerland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and back to Switzerland to Zug, Lugano and Bern before landing in Mannheim this season.
Most summers, Metropolit returns for a week in Toronto. He spends an afternoon at the Regent Park community centre spreading his goodwill. He tours around his old stomping grounds and reflects.
He even travels a few blocks away, takes the footbridge across the Don Valley Parkway and runs the Riverdale Park East hill.
When Metropolit was younger, a friend spotted then Toronto Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour running the hill as part of his summertime training. That was enough for Metropolit to copy one of his idols.
What does Metropolit think about when he visits Regent Park?
“I look back and get in the moment,” he said. “I’m so thankful in being able to get out of there. It gives me strength. It renews me, even at this age. It gives me an appreciation and reminds me where I came from.”
Metropolit came from a challenging childhood. His mother, Linda Hachey, gave birth to her eldest son when she was 18. Metropolit knows only the name of his biological father, Marty McGill.
Metropolit gets his surname from Bruce Metropolit, Linda’s former boyfriend and father of her son Troy, who is three years younger than Glen. Troy and Glen have a younger sister, Nicole, now 30.
Because of the family’s dire financial situation back then, Glen and Troy were in and out of foster homes as kids, and sometimes they were separated. But Glen found solace on the hockey rink. Troy, on the other hand, was lured by the excitement of Regent Park’s mean streets.
Sixteen years ago, Troy and two accomplices kidnapped lawyer Schuyler Sigel and his wife Linda, and then ransacked their Rosedale condominium.
Troy was sentenced to 14 years and then was charged with first-degree murder of a fellow inmate in Millhaven maximum security prison in Bath, Ont. He ended up spending 16 years in prison and was released to a halfway house last month.
“He’s upbeat,” said Glen, who frequently kept in touch with his brother throughout his incarceration. “He’s worried, but he seems to have it together. I’m doing what I can through some connections to get him a job in construction.”
Who knows what would have happened to Glen had he not fallen for hockey. If he wasn’t outside playing shinny, he was hanging out with his uncle Neil Karrandjas and his friends watching their beloved Maple Leafs.
“In looking back and thinking about it now, there was so much negative stuff going on around me, and when I fell in love with hockey, it was a way for me to get away from all the negative stuff,” Metropolit said. “As I think back now hockey brought me to a happy place.
“There was a lot of talent on that rink back in those days, but there also was a lot of misguided youth. Some of them are now dead.”
All I could think about was this little kid from Regent Park, who played organized hockey but didn’t play at a high level. I was trying not to be overwhelmed. But I was in awe. I wish I wasn’t, but I was.
Metropolit never played AAA hockey. Instead, he suited up for house league at Ted Reeve Arena, playing in hand-me-down equipment from friends. His uncle often was there to help with costs.
Eventually, through a friend, Metropolit landed a tryout in Richmond Hill for the local tier II junior team. From there, at age 20, he left Toronto to further his junior career in Vernon, B.C., in the hopes of landing a U.S. college scholarship.
He signed a letter of intent to play at Bowling Green University, but his marks weren’t good enough. So instead a coach helped him get a tryout with the IHL Atlanta Knights. He almost made the team, but started the season with the Knights ECHL affiliate in Nashville.
It was in his second pro season, with the ECHL’s 1996-97 Pensacola Ice Pilots, that Metropolit met his wife Michyln. They have three children: Alivia, 13, Max, 10, and Esther, 8.
Metropolit calls Michyln his rock. His pro career got a lift when he landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., the following season and got to play under head coach Dave Allison.
“Metro is a guy you cheer for,” Allison said. “He lives life in the sense of what is presented in front of him. He has no agenda. He hasn’t cheated anyone.”
Playing on a line with Michel Picard and Mark Greig, the three combined for 76 goals.
“The thing that struck me about him was how naïve Metro was,” Allison said. “But naïve in a great way. He was naïve in the way that whatever we wanted him to do, he would do it.
“Nothing was beneath him. We needed him to defend better, so he did it. If that’s what he needed to do to get better he would do it.”
Metropolit did get better. The Washington Capitals took notice and after his lengthy journey there was Metropolit ready for his first NHL game on Nov. 2, 1999 against the Florida Panthers.
He started the game alongside Adam Oates and Peter Bondra and lined up for the opening face-off staring at Pavel Bure. That first shift is among Metropolit’s fondest moments in the game.
“All I could think about was this little kid from Regent Park, who played organized hockey but didn’t play at a high level,” he said. “I was trying not to be overwhelmed. But I was in awe. I wish I wasn’t, but I was.”
For the next few years, Metropolit bounced back and forth between the Capitals and their AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine. He wasn’t getting a fair shot, so he packed up the family and went to Finland to play for Jokerit.
He had one year remaining on his deal with the Capitals and felt a year in Europe would allow him a fresh start the following season with a different NHL team. But a lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season.
Metropolit stayed with Jokerit and with the many Finns like Saku Koivu having returned to play at home during the lockout, along with some Canadians, Metropolit continued to flourish. He finished eighth in league scoring. He was once again on the radar of NHL teams.
But he remained in Europe in 2005-06 to play with Lugano, won the scoring title, MVP honours and a league championship. His play earned him a spot on the Canadian national team for the 2006 world championship in Riga, Latvia.
One of his teammates on that team was Dallas Stars defenceman Trevor Daley, who was raised a few blocks east of Regent Park and who was mentored by Metropolit.
“Just stay focused on his hockey and not answer the call of the streets,” replied Metropolit, when asked what advice he gave a young Daley. “I’m so proud of him. He’s such a good kid.”
After the world championship, Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell signed Metropolit. He bounced around in the NHL, playing with five teams in four years. But he proved himself and he played an important role in limited ice time in the Montreal Canadiens run to the East final in 2010.
Fast forward to this season. After four seasons in Switzerland he jumped at a chance to hook up with his old Boston Bruins assistant coach Geoff Ward, who now is running the Mannheim Eagles.
Metropolit, whose new teammates include former NHLer Jochen Hecht, leads the team in scoring with six goals and 38 points in 40 games. The Eagles are in first place and Metropolit has played so well he has signed on to play for next season.
This is Metropolit’s 20th pro season. At 1,381 combined regular season, playoff, Spengler Cup and world championship games, he is nearing the 1,400-game milestone. It’s a remarkable feat for the kid from Regent Park.
“When I first started I didn’t think about any of that,” he said. “It was all about playing a game that I love. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to stay healthy and that I continue to get an opportunity to play.
“Hockey was all I knew [two decades ago]. I don’t know what life had to offer me outside of hockey in Toronto. But I knew hockey was all I wanted to do.”