As he came up through Southern California's youth hockey system with the Huntington Beach Sun Devils, the Squirt A Ice Dogs, the Peewee AA Ice Dogs and LA Hockey Club, Emerson Etem became attached to the jersey number 96. It was the numeral donned by his favorite player, Pavel Bure, and Etem took the ice hoping to emulate the Russian Rocket's speed and goal-scoring ability. Ironically, Bure changed his number to 96 in order to commemorate September 6, 1991, the day the Russian defected and his plane touched down in, of all places, Los Angeles, just nine months before Emerson Etem was born.
Now that the Long Beach native is knocking on the door of the NHL, he still models his game after Bure. "I just try to use my speed as much as possible, shoot the puck and just try to be a pure goal scorer," Etem notes, though he adds, "But obviously, in today's game, you have to be a lot more physical. You have to have a big body presence, so I try to mix in a couple of hits now and then."
Of course, Etem is looking to do more defensively than just finish his checks before he gets to the next level. His skill on the other side of the puck may never reach the prowess of his blistering speed and sniper rifle shot, but he's become quite the film junkie while hoping to improve his play in all three zones.
"I'm just watching lots of video," Etem stresses. "I'm just going over video with the coaches, whether it's penalty kill or power play, then [in games], just trying to get back to the zone, backcheck as much as possible and go from there."
And after a slow start to his second season with the Medicine Hat Tigers, the defensive play is helping Etem fill his offensive stat columns.
"It's given me chances in the offensive zone, especially last game," Etem says of his recent two-goal effort. "I was going more in straight lines in the defensive zone, instead of curling and just going back and forth with the D men. I think that paid off."
Defense and physicality are two traits the Ducks would love to see out of their 2010 first-round pick, but with Etem being the only true speedster and pure goal scorer in their cupboard, you have to believe that they're happy to have him just the way he is.
"I stayed around after the Draft," Etem recalls, "And [the Ducks' staff] told me how excited they were, what kind of player they see me as. I think I was a perfect fit for them, and they were happy with the pick they made."
Anaheim was certainly happy to get the young center, who was projected as a mid-round pick, at 29th overall in what would have been the biggest steal of the first round had the Ducks not already taken Top 5 defenseman Cam Fowler at 12th. Etem may have been the first Duck to receive an uproarious (and heartfelt) cheer at the Staples Center. And rightfully so, as he is one of California's native sons, who found himself at a Draft held just 25 miles north of his hometown, and then selected by a team that plays 20 miles east.
It's a storyboook ending to a journey that began with Etem leaving California for Minnesota at the age of 14 in hopes of earning a spot with the National Team Development Program. Etem is happy with that decision, but he is equally happy that young players today don't have to leave the Golden State.
"Hockey in California wasn't where it is now back when I was little," Etem stresses. "I just wanted to put myself on the map nationwide, but now you can be great in California and still make the National Development Team. Guys from California are getting picked in the first round of the Bantam Draft in the WHL. Now, it's totally changed. I don't think kids need to move. I think the hockey's great in California, and I'm happy with how I developed when I was there."
Moving did pay off for Etem, who found himself in Ann Arbor with the National Development Team in 2008. While there, he experienced his only encounter with racism in his hockey career. And while the LA Times seemed to imply that it was emblematic of the hardship he faced as a black hockey player while growing up, Etem emphasizes that it had never happened before or since, whether in California, Minnesota, Canada or anywhere else he's played the game.
"Yeah, that was a little bit blown up by the LA Times," Etem says of the incident. "Guys called me names, and then afterwards I told their coach, but nothing more than that. It was the first time [it had ever happened], and I moved on right away. It didn't really bother me. I just wanted to teach that kid a lesson. It worked, and I moved on from it."
While he has likely encountered more prejudice as a California hockey player than as a black hockey player, Etem remains conscious of his role as an African-American in the sport, and perhaps as a role model to future minority players.
"I want to just get the game more diversified," Etem says. "The diversity in the game isn't where it should be or where it needs to be. So that's one of my goals, to set an example as an African-American hockey player, and I'm sure [Devante Smith-Pelly] can say the same. As an African-Canadian player, there are guys like Wayne Simmonds for him. Other guys, American-born players, Dustin Byfuglien and so on, are also setting examples today. And I'm just here to do the same thing, just be a good example and draw attention to minorities and try to get them in the game."
To this point in his career, Emerson Etem has been that example, both to minority hockey prospects and young west coast prospects. He describes himself as a member of the new wave of California hockey players, along with friends like Beau Bennett and Matt Nieto. He is also a member of the next great wave of black hockey players, along with names like Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Byfuglien, Kyle Okposo, the Stewart Brothers, Evander Kane, Joel Ward, and P.K. Subban.
Once the Ducks allow Etem to pick his own jersey number, he says he'll probably go with 96. For young Russian players in Bure's time, that number surely represented a superstar's journey to the big league when getting there was so much harder. Perhaps, to a lesser degree, for the next Emerson Etem growing up in Long Beach, the number 96 will come to mean the same thing.
For those on Twitter, feel free to follow Etem. He confirmed that his account is @emersonetem