For Emmerton, Traverse City a great opportunity

by Larry Wigge ||

Cory Emmerton is one of those names that some fans around the NHL may not be familiar with. That should change soon enough.

"He’s a really competitive center who sees the ice a step ahead of the play. A natural. He’s slows the game down," said Jim Nill, vice president and assistant GM of the Detroit Red Wings.

Emmerton was a second-round draft choice by the Red Wings in 2006, 41st overall. He’s one of those players who is on the verge of making the big step to the NHL after posting 10 goals and 25 assists in 69 games for AHL Grand Rapids last season. And his performance in the five-day pre-training camp prospects tournament at Centre Ice rinks in Traverse City is more than just a Field of Dreams playing field for him.

The Red Wings have hosted this tournament for 10 years. This year, it includes Atlanta, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis and the New York Rangers.

Nill talks about the three levels of development fans will see in this tournament — AHL players close to achieving their NHL dream chance, those just arriving at the AHL level and the kids the eight teams here are still watching at the amateur level.

"For those players, it’s like going from the prairie to this kind of freeway," Nill added, recalling seeing the first steps to the NHL by Wings’ players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and so many others come at Traverse City. "The pace is fast and the competition is fierce.

"For Cory, this is a chance for him to make a statement. He showed us some good things last year and then kind of hit a wall. Half the year was great, half the year was a learning experience."

Emmerton said he hit the wall in his first AHL season because of the mental strain and conditioning it takes to play a long schedule that often includes three games in three nights. It can be a shock to the body if you don’t train right and eat right.

He looks at this tournament as a chance to climb to the level.

"This is a high-tempo test. Just what I need," Emmerton said. "The Red Wings want me to be a leader since this is my third time here. I think I’m ready to make a statement. I’m more mentally tough — and that’s important to the consistency I didn’t have last year. I’ve trained well, gained 5-6 pounds of muscle and nutritionally I’ve learned to eat better to make be stronger and more confident in myself."

Strong character is what the Red Wings love about Emmerton. Typical of highly regarded prospects, there’s a school of hard knocks they must graduate from. Like most young players, there is always a pothole or two on the road to the NHL — an obstacle that has to be overcome.

For Emmerton, the 6-foot, 190-pound center from St. Thomas, Ont., the most trying time of his life came in October and November of 2007, after he had already been drafted by the Wings. He was feeling good about himself until the roof caved in on him emotionally.

"My parents were going through a divorce, I got traded from Kingston to Brampton and then I contracted mononucleosis," Emmerton said, shaking his head. That’s a lot for an older person to handle much less a youngster trying to improve at an intense game and remain focused on still enjoying his youth.

"You feel like everything is falling apart in your life and there’s nothing you can do," Emmerton said.

Fortunately for Cory, his parents, Paul and Lisa, were still there for him.

"They say you’re only as good as the strength you gain from your parents — and I was lucky," Emmerton said. "I could lean on each of them at a tough time in our lives. But then, they’ve always been there for me."

After the Red Wings fell behind 4-1 early in the third period of their first Traverse City game Sunday against Atlanta, Emmerton scored with 4:35 left in the game to tie the contest, 4-4. Then he added an assist on an empty-net goal by Brent Raedeke. Plus, he was a plus-3 in the win.

That’s a pretty good statement.