Pettersen paving a path from Norway to the NHL

Photo: Manitoba Moose

by Brandon Weiss | AHL On The Beat

Forward movement, always.

According to Stockton Heat head coach Cail MacLean, that’s the name of the game.

“The guys that make it in the next level, they’re always working at improving their game. For those guys, complacency is slow to creep in. That’s what lets them continue to make forward progress.”

He hasn’t worked with rookie forward and Flames prospect Emilio Pettersen for long, but he’s learned that comfortability in the status quo isn’t something that the winger makes a habit.

The evolution of Pettersen started at just 14 years old, when the Norway native -– after meeting a coach at an international tournament -– packed up, hauled out and headed across the Atlantic Ocean to compete for Selects Academy of South Kent High School in Connecticut.

“I didn’t think twice,” he said. “Coming from Norway, you sometimes have to just take what you can get. I just had to run with it.”

In the rearview he left a smaller town with a penchant for puck, Norway’s hockey haven, the town of Manglerud, on the outskirts of Oslo. Asked what makes the city itself unique, he wasted no time.

“In Norway it’s more skiing, soccer,” said Pettersen with a chuckle. “Just, you know, not hockey. It’s not like that in Manglerud.”

If he has anything to say about it, that may change. And for a 20-year-old who just six years ago believed enough in his ability to make it on the ice that he left his home to chase his goal, it’s tough to tell him he can’t move that mountain.

It didn’t take long for him to leave his mark state side. He remains the all-time points leader — by a wide margin — for Selects Academy, a club that has produced NHL’ers like Joel Farabee, one of Pettersen’s teammates; Shayne Gostisbehere; and Andrew Peeke, among others.

From there it was off to the USHL, where he competed for Omaha in 2016-17 and Muskegon in 2017-18. In 117 games, Pettersen tallied 73 points and 24 goals.

Following the 2017-18 season, Pettersen’s name was called in the sixth round of the NHL Draft. He’d been selected by the Calgary Flames, or so he thought. It was a bit unclear, since he was watching from home in Norway and the TV had cut to a commercial right after he thought he heard his name.

“My mom, my sister, my step-dad and I were on the couch, we were like, ‘Was that my name?’ It was a lot of tears from my mom, then the phone call came from Brad Treliving. A lot of my friends called me after. I’ll never forget it.”

A moment he’ll surely never forget.

Before turning pro, Pettersen headed fulfill another commitment he made at just 14 — going to the University of Denver to skate for the Pioneers.

“I committed when I was still in Norway,” he explained. “I had no idea what college was, really. I had no idea what it was like or anything. At that time I was just willing to do whatever it took to make it in the U.S. or play professional hockey some time in the future. I just thought it was awesome that someone wanted me at a young age, saw something special in me.

“It’s kind of crazy.”

The investment in Pettersen paid dividends down the road.

He enjoyed a decorated collegiate career, highlighted by nearly point-per-game production that earned him NCHC conference recognition in both seasons as well as being named the team’s Offensive Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season and the school’s Sportsman of the Year as a freshman.

Following his sophomore season, Pettersen signed his entry-level contract with the Flames. The kid from the small town in a skiing country was going to get his shot to prove his stuff.

From the first time MacLean met him, Pettersen made an impression.

“He’s really competitive, he’s invested in trying to get better every day, and he’s someone that you can tell is pretty driven,” said the Heat bench boss. “Now the goal is to continue to grow in all aspects of the game.”

He flashed his brilliance quickly in game action. He hit the 10-point mark in just 12 professional games. Through 18 AHL contests, he has three multi-point efforts including a three-point outburst against divisional foe Manitoba. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, he could’ve been forgiven for needing some time to adjust.

For Pettersen, that hasn’t been the case.

“There’s obviously things that are more difficult than others, especially this year,” he said. “The games come quickly. That’s a really challenging thing. It’s hard work. You’ve got to be able to get your nose dirty in front of the net and win battles.”

He’s made it this far, might as well keep going. There are still aspects to work on, but man-hours on the ice have never been a concern for Pettersen. He’s picking up the details with the help of linemates he’s skated beside who have the benefit of experience, including appearances on a line with 2019-20 AHL All-Star Matthew Phillips and Stockton’s leading goal-scorer Adam Ruzicka. Lately, he’s been partnering with Luke Philp and Dmitry Zavgorodniy.

For a player who has developed into a top-tier prospect within the Calgary Flames organization, he remains steadfast in his drive to work to improve. It’s his motor that jumps on screen, even with a wicked shot, poise beyond his years and an ability to create not only for himself, but for teammates.

He has drawn comparisons to another Flames sixth-rounder that made his way through Stockton to reach Calgary, Andrew Mangiapane. It’s a seemingly too-easy case to be made.

Size? Both stand 5-10. Draft? Mangiapane was taken 166th overall in 2015, Pettersen 167th in 2018. Both shoot left. Both had similar starts, with the elder notching nine points in his first 12 games with Stockton in 2016-17, Pettersen claiming 10 this season.

Heck, they practically have the same birth date. Really — Mangiapane on April 4, 1996, Pettersen on April 3, 2000.

Eerie coincidences aside, it’s also the style of play that MacLean points to as a reason Stockton’s No. 46 and Calgary’s No. 88 seem to be made of the same stuff.

“Emilio’s got similar tenacity and work ethic (to Mangiapane). He’s got the quick feet, quick hands. He likes to take the puck to the hard areas. It’s just a matter of learning, as Mangiapane did, how to do that really consistently and in the right manner.”

For Pettersen, the long-term goals are probably similar to many up-and-comers. He wants to develop into an AHL graduate and become a regular in the NHL. He wants to win a Stanley Cup while wearing the flaming “C”. But what sets him apart from many is the intrinsic drive that comes with knowing he’s not just playing for himself.

He’s playing for the next wave and the one after that, too. Mats Zuccarello showed Pettersen that Norway had opened the door to the NHL. Now, Pettersen wants to kick it down.

“I want to show other Norwegian hockey players that it’s possible,” he said. “When you come from a little hockey community and a small culture for hockey, sometimes it seems like a big world. But whatever you set your dreams to, if you work hard enough, that’s something that’s on you.

“Me doing well over here, me making it to the NHL one day could prove that. It’s possible for a kid from Norway to make it and do well. I want to be that guy that paves the path for younger kids from Norway.”