By Dave Frederick
Imagine not only accomplishing the difficult task of being selected in the NHL draft, but also achieving the rare distinction of representing your hometown team. Add to the mix having your name called on draft day in an arena just 40 miles from your childhood home.
This improbable scenario is exactly what happened during the 2010 draft when Emerson Etem (pronounced Eat-em) was chosen by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round (29th overall) in front of more than 100 supporters at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“I fell to them and it just worked out,” Etem said. “It's a perfect place for me. The feeling of being at the draft with friends and family was just a great moment."
Etem's success story has more of a Hollywood twist to it than most other draft selections. Born in 1992, a year before the Anaheim franchise was formed, Etem discovered hockey at the age of three. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., an area known more for surfing than skating, he learned his craft on rollerblades.
When Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988 it immediately increased interest in hockey amongst children and the sport’s popularity quickly grew in Southern California, something Etem took advantage of.
"There was a local roller rink down the street and I wanted to try it out," Etem said. "I joined up with a bunch of players and had so much fun. It got more serious over time and continued to be fun for me.”
Etem played youth hockey in California until he was 14 when he decided to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep School in Faribault, Minn., – a hockey institution that has produced such stars as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Zach Parise. After two successful years there, Etem moved on to the U.S. national team development program’s under-18 squad in 2008-09 before moving once again to the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western League a year later. Etem led all WHL rookies with 37 goals in 2009-10 and established himself as a premier player.
"Last year I got off to a good start with nine goals in my first nine games," he said. "The adjustment wasn't hard at all. Then, at one point in the season, I had a stretch of two goals in 20 games, so it wasn't too easy towards the end as the games got tougher, but it was definitely a learning experience."
Etem’s breakaway speed, puckhandling and offensive ability grabbed headlines and the attention of NHL scouts. A number of teams focused in on him, but eventually Etem’s childhood dream became a reality when Anaheim announced his name at the podium.
"What was so important to us was his personality and character, the dedication he's shown to improve his game over the past three or four years,” said Ducks director of amateur scouting, Martin Madden. "He's from California and has had to work hard to keep improving in that environment. He sought out opportunities to keep elevating and we were impressed by that during our interviews with him.”
And Etem's dedication continues to shine. He spends off-seasons training with T.R. Goodman – who has previously worked with fitness freak Chris Chelios – at Pro Camp Sports in Venice, Calif., a facility that is popular among many current and former NHL players. There, Etem has formed friendships with recently retired defenseman Rob Blake, as well as current Flyers blueliner Sean O' Donnell and Red Wings left winger Jiri Hudler. The youngster has gained valuable advice from each of them and plans on incorporating their words of wisdom as he continues his ascent to the NHL.
While the Ducks have expectations that their Californian first-rounder will one day develop into a top-six offensive weapon, they certainly won’t push him into that role.
“I think he can be a third-line player and kill penalties at first,” Madden said. “Having said that, we as a group like to see all our kids go through parts of an NHL season as a first-year pro and I do believe Emerson will have to go through that experience as well. So one more year at Medicine Hat and you never know what can happen in his next training camp. We don’t like to rush our guys and we expect him to play out his junior career and then get some time in Syracuse before making our team.”
And all of this is helping to change the perception and reality of hockey in California.
“While there weren’t many rinks when I was growing up, we were going up to Toronto and handling them pretty well,” Etem said. “It’s always been the case where if you’re from California, you don’t know how to play hockey. But people are starting to realize and give them a shot. The Ducks have done a great job buying and promoting new rinks in Southern California.”
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