LOS ANGELES – With each passing pick Emerson Etem looked up at the video screen above him. He stared at the image of a player he was rated ahead of hugging his parents and walking up to the stage to accept his jersey and pose for the cameras. Each time he took a deep breath, rubbed his eyes and looked down.
Etem sat seven rows up from the Staples Center floor, surrounded by 100 friends and family, overlooking 30 tables of general managers and front office executives who continually passed on him. The smile on his face when he first sat down nearly three hours ago had long since eroded into a cold stare.
"There's no reason to think I don't belong there in the top ten," said Etem, who was ranked eighth among North American skaters for the NHL entry draft. "It's not really what goes on in the draft but five years from now I want to be at the top of this draft class. That's an important goal I have in mind right now."
Etem, an 18-year-old righter winger from Long Beach, was supposed to be the earliest selection of a California-born-and-trained player since Jonathon Blum of Rancho Santa Margarita was chosen 23rd by the Nashville Predators in 2007. Instead he watched his friend and former teammate Beau Bennett of Gardena receive the honor when he was picked 20th by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Etem spent most of the week leading up to the draft reminding the media about Bennett, who was projected to go in the second round, and now he was shaking his friend's hand as he walked to the stage before him like so many others.
Patience pays off
Waiting is nothing new for Etem. He practically mastered the art the last four summers when he would make the 2½-hour trip from Long Beach to Venice to train with T.R. Goodman, who trains more than 25 NHL players each summer. Since Etem's parents were working and he didn't have a car of his own, he would wake up at six o'clock in the morning and rollerblade four miles to the nearest train station. He would get on one train then transfer to another train then transfer to a bus before transferring back to his rollerblades for the last mile before his real workout began.
"It took up a lot of my day but it was a humbling experience and well worth it," Etem said. "I did it Monday-Saturday in the summertime and it made me the player I am today."
Etem's three-hour workouts at Goodman's Pro Camp Sports facility with NHL veterans Chris Chelios, Rob Blake and Sean O'Donnell molded Etem into the player he is today. While most of the guys on the ice were more than twice his age, he earned their respect by never playing or acting like a 14-year-old.
"It was just a humbling experience to go there and train with old vets who have been in the league for so long and you can learn so much from," he said. "They would actually help me go to the train station sometimes and drop me off on their way home after workouts. For me it was just a learning experience on and off the ice on how to be an NHL player."
While the sight of seeing a young teenager spending his summer vacation traveling back and forth to a hockey rink nearly three hours away may seem odd, it made perfect sense to Etem's parents, Richard, who played tennis and rowed at the Naval Academy, and Patricia, who made the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic rowing teams. They both knew if their son was ever going to make it as a hockey player he would need to put in the time and effort most others would never think of doing.
"It was always in him," Patricia said. "He drove it. He wanted it. My job as a parent is to help my kids reach their dreams and that's what my husband and I are all about. Emerson knew what he wanted to do and he was driven to do it. Being an Olympian myself, I know you have to go way above and beyond even what you think you can do in order to make it happen. You have to believe in yourself and he's believed in Emerson Etem since Day 1."
Playing in the minority
For others to believe in Etem as well he knew he had to leave his friends and family in Long Beach and develop his skills as a hockey players elsewhere. That's why he left home at the age of 14 to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minnesota, a school which has produced such NHL stars as Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and Jack Johnson.
Etem decided to go to Shattuck after his older brother Martin, 23, played them during Crosby's tenure. It was actually his brother who first got Emerson into a pair of roller skates when he was three and a pair of ice skates when he was six. Even when he would skate at the Long Beach YMCA, Martin knew Emerson was destined for something more than the local leagues he was encouraged to play in.
"He just loved it from the beginning," he said. "It was his passion from the moment he put those skates on. He loved it."
Attending Shattuck was part of Etem's meticulous four-year plan to finally make it to the NHL but even he wasn't so sure how realistic his goal was until he made it to the prep team as a sophomore, just as Crosby and Johnson had.
"I think that was the turning point for me," Etem said. "If you look at the guys who've made the prep team in their second year they're all young guys who are really successful in the NHL and I felt I was following in their footsteps. I just felt that here's an accomplishment that very few do and I felt from there on out I was a special player."
So special in fact that his next stop was the U.S. development program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He played for the U.S. Under-17 National Team and recorded 45 points in 50 games. What wasn't so special during his time in Ann Arbor, however, were the occasional racial slurs he would hear on and off the ice.
Etem's mother is African-American and his father is white and he has had to overcome not only being a minority in largely white cities but in a largely white sport.
"It was hard, there's very few African-Americans in the sport today and I was one of the only ones on each team I played with," Etem said. "I hope in the status I have now I'm going to use that to promote inner-city kids to get into hockey."
Etem's North American tour towards his NHL dream continued to Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada last year to play for the Medicine Hat Tigers. In his first season in the Western Hockey League, Etem led all rookies in goals (37) and finished fourth overall in points (65) in 72 games. He added seven goals in 12 playoff games and was named Medicine Hat's Rookie of the Year.
While at Medicine Hat, Etem learned under Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins who described Etem as a "real professional already."
"Every day he prepares like a pro," said Desjardins. "His biggest strength is he wants to improve as a player. When you tell him to do something he is prepared to do it."
Throughout Etem's journey his parents as well as his brother and sister, Elise, have followed him to each small town and hole-in-the-wall arena. They all thought Emerson was destined for greatness on the water but they just never expected it to be frozen. Not only were Etem's parents world-class rowers but his brother and sister were elite rowers as well.
"I've actually never tried rowing," Emerson said. "It's weird since everyone else did but I never did it. Maybe later on, I'll try it out but I've never done it."
His mother laughs when asked about Emerson's aversion to rowing. "His brother and sister used to out row him but it's OK. He can out skate them."
Etem probably wished he could have rowed out of Staples Center as the first round of the draft dragged on and he fiddled with his phone while looking over at his brother and shaking his head after each team passed on him.
Finally after nearly four hours and two picks away from having to wait another day and another round to hear his name, Etem was finally selected by the Anaheim Ducks. The kid who grew up 20 minutes from the Honda Center but traveled the world to become a hockey player was finally coming home to realize his dream.
"He had charted his course and destiny and his dream came true," said his dad, an avionics engineer for Boeing. "We've missed him. We've done a lot of traveling following him but he felt he had to leave home and focus on his dream and now he's coming home to see them come true."
After Etem finally went on stage to accept his Ducks jersey and put it on for the first time, the Long Beach native who has been inside more obscure hockey facilities than he cares to remember had a surprising revelation as he walked backstage.
"This is embarrassing but I've actually never been to a Ducks game before," he said. "I lived 20 minutes from the Honda Center and was around it but the first game I go to I'm going to be playing in it."
At least now his journey to the rink won't be as long and tenuous as it has been the past four years.