A piercing wind whips across two high-rise housing tenements as children smack a tennis ball with hockey sticks. Mattresses clutter stairwells. Debris hangs from windows. Broken beer bottles stain a desolate parking lot.

Regent Park, considered Canada's most drug-infested housing project, has all the signs of urban blight. It's not much different from some projects in the United States--except the blacktop of a basketball court is replaced by a thin, crackling ice surface at two makeshift outdoor rinks.

This is where Washington Capitals prospect Glen Metropolit returned on a chilly Sunday in late November. He came back to Toronto to play a hockey game. He came back to Regent Park a hero.

Metropolit, 25, is one of the few to make it out of his home neighborhood. Not every youngster has the will and determination to navigate the minefield of city life--drugs, alcohol, gangs--and cling to a dream virtually no one believed he could fulfill. That's why Metropolit is the first NHL player to emerge from Regent Park. Hockey was his life and his escape; the game also was his salvation.

"We had to drag him off the ice to get him to eat," said Linda Hachey, Metropolit's mother. "There were a lot of freezing cold days and there's no one out there but him--he's the only one out there smacking a puck against the boards. Nothing ever distracted him from hockey. He never wanted to stop playing."

Metropolit's attitude remains the same.

When, after he had a strong preseason, the Capitals demoted him to Portland, Maine, after one game, he made it impossible for them to keep him there. Now, Metropolit is back in Portland, sent there a few weeks ago after playing 16 games with the Capitals--some solid, some spectacular. During that time, he scored his first NHL goal, contributed to key victories and started a game in Toronto with more than 50 friends and relatives watching.

He never complained about the demotions, even though he produced three goals and seven points despite limited playing time while with the Capitals. He also was tied for the team lead with a plus-2 despite being labeled a player with defensive deficiencies.

Still, Metropolit would rather continue to scorch the American Hockey League and force his way back to Washington. After a lifetime of hard work proving doubters wrong, Metropolit isn't pouting. He's been dealt much harsher blows, learned to live with much crueler rejection.

His natural father was not part of his life. Metropolit has never met him. Hachey was 19 when he left the family, and she soon began a lengthy relationship with Bruce Metropolit, who assumed the role of father.

Hachey and Metropolit had a son together, Troy, 22, who was recently arrested and charged with robbing, kidnapping and extorting a prominent Toronto attorney and his wife--a high-profile case in Canada. They also had a daughter, Nicole, 15, an honor student. The couple parted eight years ago.

Troy chose the road Glen so easily could have taken. When Glen was running from school to the rink, Troy was often getting into trouble. He never had a passion for sports. He has spent most of the past eight years in legal trouble.

"There's a lot of talented kids from around here, but there's so many other things to do," said Mike Wessom, Metropolit's longtime friend and former youth hockey teammate. "There's a lot of pressure into making money at a young age. There's so many kids getting into the wrong things, and at that age it's so easy to go along with them, similar to what happened to Glen's brother.

"A lot of kids around here have an attitude--hard-nosed kids who don't know right from wrong. Glen was totally different from them. Glen always made the right decisions."

Metropolit estimates he moved 20 times within Regent Park as a youngster. Crime was rampant, especially when crack made its way to Canada in the mid-1980s. A friend of the family once stole their VCR to buy drugs; users and dealers abounded. Daily life was trying. Anything a rambunctious teen could possibly want was there for the taking.

But Metropolit rarely created problems, his mother said, and when he did, "All I'd have to say is, 'No hockey tonight,' and he'd be crying," Hachey said. "And I'd never have to do it again. He'd ask to have a licking instead."

In Toronto, youth hockey is religion, but it comes with a steep price. Hockey equipment is expensive; skates and sticks are outgrown constantly. The top leagues carry steep fees and ice time isn't cheap. A car is essential to get to games and practices. Hachey didn't drive.

Metropolit knew his family couldn't afford his participation in suburban travel leagues, so he never mentioned the idea to his mother. Thus, Metropolit never was drafted by a major junior hockey team, and he wasn't scouted at important youth tournaments.

After one terrific season in British Columbia, Metropolit was recruited heavily by several U.S. colleges. He signed a letter-of-intent with Bowling Green, but did not meet academic requirements.

Bowling Green's coach helped him get a tryout with the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League. Metropolit, then 20, wasn't ready for a league full of former NHL players, but made the Knights' farm team in Nashville of the East Coast Hockey League.

Early on, Metropolit could not crack Nashville's lineup. He had talent, but it was raw talent.

No one had taught him much about the defensive side of hockey or playing a team game. He had never had proper weight and fitness training. But Nashville's coach, Mark Kumpel, now an assistant in Portland, had never met a more eager or coachable player.

By the end of the season he couldn't afford to take Metropolit off the ice. He had evolved into one of the team's best and most popular players. He finished that season with 30 goals and 61 points in 58 games.

"He's come a million miles since the first time I saw him," Kumpel said. "He just kept pushing himself to get better and better.

"He's a wide-eyed kid with an innocence to him. You could say, 'Glen, I want you to jump up and put both feet in a glass of water.' And he'd say, 'I can't do that.' And you'd say, 'Yes, you can.' And you'd turn back around and somehow he'd get two feet in a glass of water. He still continues to surprise me.

"He's not done developing. He's not a full-time NHL player yet, but I think he'll develop into that and, to his credit, he's still wide-eyed and innocent. He's still trying to put those two feet in that glass of water."

Metropolit began to add muscle to a small frame, and spent his summers playing professional roller hockey and working for a friend's water repair business.

No workout was too intense. One day Wessom saw former Toronto all-star Doug Gilmour running through Riverdale Park (known for its treacherously steep terrain) in the middle of the summer. He told Metropolit Gilmour ran the park five or six times. The next day the two of them were out there in the sticky heat.

"After 15 times around, he was still going and I was down on the ground puking and seeing stars," Wessom said. "His determination was unbelievable. That's when I knew he had the determination to do whatever he wanted to do."

Metropolit began the next season (1996-97) back in the ECHL, with Pensacola. It was there he met his fiance, Michlyn Gazaday, whom he will marry this summer. Her upbringing was nothing like his. Her father is a ph.D.; she got a Ford Explorer for graduation.

Two seasons later, Metropolit would be an all-star in the IHL. After his first season in Grand Rapids, the Ottawa Senators invited Metropolit to training camp primarily as a favor to his agent. He was cut a few days in and never played a preseason game.

His fire only intensified. Last season Metropolit finished in the top 10 in IHL scoring with 81 points. NHL scouts who once had no time for him now wanted to talk.

Ottawa, Detroit and Washington were among the teams pursuing him, but Metropolit knew the Capitals had the weakest offensive talent of the bunch, providing the best chance to reach the NHL immediately.

On July 19 Metropolit signed a two-year deal with the Capitals. For the first time in his life he was the property of an NHL team. For the first time in his life he could live on hockey alone.

He received a $60,000 signing bonus and was guaranteed to make at least $125,000 each season. The deal is worth a prorated $75,000 a season in Portland, a prorated $510,000 in the NHL this season and a prorated $465,000 in Washington next season.

Metropolit was among the hardest-working players in training camp, showcasing his offensive gifts in exhibition games. On opening night he was on the top line with stars Peter Bondra and Adam Oates, then headed back to the minors the next day. When he returned to Washington on Nov. 3, Metropolit scored his first two NHL goals and assisted on another, leading the Capitals to a dramatic victory over Ottawa--the team that discarded him a year ago.

Hachey, who now lives in the suburb of Scarborough, gathered with about 25 friends and family members to watch that game on satellite at Metropolit's uncle's house. "We were jumping up and down and swinging each other around," Hachey said. "You'd think the guys there had scored the goals and not Glen."

His next game was against the Maple Leafs, his hometown team, and when Metropolit returned to Toronto with the Capitals for a Nov. 29 game, newspapers chronicled his ascent from Regent Park. A Canadian TV crew followed him back to his old neighborhood and then out to his mother's house, where he gave her the stick he used to score his first NHL goal.

It hangs near the dining room table, and no one has to ask why it's there. "I look at it all the time," Hachey said.

Metropolit went to dinner with 20 buddies that night. The only person he didn't get to visit was Troy, who remains in jail pending trial. He just hoped his brother was watching on television.

Coach Ron Wilson gave Metropolit a rare start that night, and as he stood on the blue line at Air Canada Centre for the national anthems he was more nervous than he had been in his first NHL game. Emotions flooded over him. He was just minutes from where he grew up, but was living in another world, one only he knew was attainable.

Then, a few weeks later he was back in Portland. The NHL remains just a phone call away.

"Even back when I played in the ECHL, everyone [from home] was proud of me, but now they've got a certain glow in their eyes," Metropolit said. "It makes me feel good to see those guys having fun and enjoying it as much as I am. It's like we were all in the NHL. It helps everyone there to see someone come out. It kind of puts a joy to everyone's face. I could see it."

He'll return to Toronto this summer and plans on coming back to Regent Park long after his playing days are over. He wants to work with the parks and recreation staff to maintain the rinks and be a positive role model for less fortunate children. He wants to help others escape.

The Glen Metropolit File

Jersey number: 20.

Position: Center.

Shoots: Right.

Height: 5 feet 11.

Weight: 196 pounds.

Born: June 25, 1974.

Birthplace: Toronto.

Acquired: Signed as free agent July 20, 1999.

Details: Led Grand Rapids Griffins in goals, assists, points, power-play goals (12), game-winning goals (6) and plus/minus (+12). ...In 1997-98, with Grand Rapids, led IHL rookies with +19 rating. ...Finished third on team in scoring with 20 goals and 35 assists.

1999-2000 Capitals Statistics

GP G A Pts +/- PIM

16 3 4 7 0 2

PP Sh Gw Gt S Sh%

0 0 1 0 17 17.6