Road to the NHL leads Etem back home

by Alyssa Dombrowski || for

It was during his childhood in his shorefront hometown of Long Beach, Calif., that Emerson Etem of the American Hockey League’s Norfolk Admirals got his unconventional start in the game of hockey.

“I started playing roller hockey when I was three,” said Etem, now 21 and in his second season of professional hockey. “There was a YMCA right down the street with a roller rink. My brother tried it out so I just wanted to follow in his footsteps – it looked fun and I ended up loving it.

“When I was six years old, I moved to ice hockey and it just kind of took off [from there].”

Etem moved to Minnesota at the age of 14 to play for Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, where he won a national championship in 2008. He competed for the U.S. National Team Developmental Program from 2008-09 and spent three seasons as a prolific major junior scorer with Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League.

Taken by the Anaheim Ducks with the 29th overall selection in the 2010 NHL Draft, Etem made his professional debut with the Syracuse Crunch, then Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, at the end of the 2011-12 season, and after the Ducks moved their affiliation to Norfolk, the 6-foot-1 forward began his rookie pro season in Norfolk, tallying 16 points in 45 contests.

After crisscrossing the continent, Etem made his NHL debut with Anaheim on Jan. 29, 2013, at San Jose, and tallied his first NHL goal in a 5-3 home victory over the Sharks on Mar. 18. For the California native, the experience was two decades in the making.

“The best thing is putting on the jersey of the team that has invested so much time and money in drafting you,” said Etem. “In Anaheim, it makes it that much more special that I’m 15 minutes from the house that I grew up in. Having my parents, brother and sister at every game is awesome, and makes it much easier and more comfortable to play there.”

After recording 10 points (3-7-10) for the Ducks in 38 regular-season games last season, Etem posted five points (3-2-5) in Anaheim’s first-round playoff series against Detroit – including a goal each in Game 6 and Game 7.

Etem started the 2013-14 season in Anaheim but returned to Norfolk on Nov. 27 – a move that Admirals head coach Trent Yawney believes can be attributed to the depth in the Ducks’ organization.

“He had a good start to this year, but then it was just numbers,” said Yawney. “There were just too many players, so when he was reassigned we worked on refining his game and getting it consistent.”

In 31 AHL games this season, Etem leads Norfolk in assists (22) and plus/minus (plus-9), shares the team lead in points (34) with Rickard Rakell. He also has 11 points in 21 games with Anaheim. Undeterred by the talent that sits in front of him in Anaheim’s system, Etem has used his time in Norfolk to focus on his development.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of depth and everyone who is up deserves to be there,” Etem said. “I just try to get better at the things I can work on. My goal is to be consistent, and I think the challenge is to keep scoring goals and helping your team get on the board, but at the same time focusing on the defensive game.”

It’s the mindset of a true professional, according to Yawney.

“He’s a mature guy for his age and he’s got a great attitude,” said Yawney. “The organization has been very upfront with him. They know that at some point, he’s going to play for the Ducks, but he’s still a young player.

“He gets to play in all different situations [in Norfolk]. What we’re trying to do is keep his game sharp here so that when [he gets recalled], he can provide whatever the team needs up there.”

Etem’s experience with the Ducks, who sit atop the NHL standings, has given him a taste of what it takes to remain in the league long-term.

“The NHL level is all about not making mistakes, creating energy for your linemates and being on the right side of the puck,” Etem said. “For a young guy playing on a veteran team and a first-place team, you just have to make sure that you’re working hard – I think when you do that, the guys respect you more.

“I have great relationships with all the guys up there [in Anaheim], so it makes it that much easier to come right in and perform if I do get called up.”

Yawney is confident that Etem’s attention to detail at both the AHL and NHL level will carry him far throughout his professional career.

“The one thing we try to provide him with is just that consistency factor, because that’s what keeps players in the NHL for long periods of time,” said Yawney, who played 593 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues from 1987-99. “With all our players, we tell them to focus on the things that they can control, such as their preparation, work ethic and attitude. Then it’s just a matter of time – you never know what can happen, and things can change in a hurry.

“He’s a hard worker and a pretty conscientious guy. I think he knows that he will get his opportunity, and he’s just got to be ready for it.”