ANAHEIM – The most embarrassing moment for a first-year player at any team's rookie party usually comes when the youngster has to stand up in front of the team and entertain the group.
For Emerson Etem, it happened when he broke bread with teammates at said dinner in cuisine-friendly Chicago and it was time to order.
"The guys were giving it to me because I ordered a club sandwich at a fancy steakhouse," Etem said. "They were giving it to me."
Etem did have to get up and tell a story, but he is hesitant to divulge details. His own story is good enough.
Etem, 20, is living a local-boy-makes-good existence with the Anaheim Ducks, who play their penultimate home game of the regular season Wednesday at Honda Center against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
A product of Long Beach – situated halfway between Anaheim and Los Angeles – Etem has given the Ducks speed on the wing and teamed with Andrew Cogliano for a potent combination up top on the penalty kill. He has contributed three goals and six assists while averaging 11:23 of ice time in 33 games.
"He brings so much energy to the team, and he brings that same consistent effort night in and night out and that's what makes him so useful and so special for us," defenseman Cam Fowler said. "He can create so much with his speed, and I think he's learned how to harness that in certain situations. He's definitely an exciting player to watch."
Coach Bruce Boudreau couldn't keep Etem with the club out of training camp because of the team's positional needs. He initially envisioned Etem spending a year in the American Hockey League then being a part-time NHL player in his second year. But that plan changed quickly.
"He's accelerated the way he plays," Boudreau said. "So he's been a full-time guy."
Etem made his NHL debut Jan. 29 and became the 13th player born and trained in Southern California to appear in the NHL. He roofed his first NHL goal past San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi off Daniel Winnik's feed to finish a pretty rush March 18 at Honda Center.
His father, Richard, was in the stands with some buddies enjoying the hometown moment. Etem admits he occasionally watches it on YouTube.
"I kind of want to relive the moment," he said. "Before some of the games, I like to watch the play, watch what happened. It gives me a little bit of confidence. I've watched it a few times."
Etem's welcome-to-the-NHL moment was a simple shot on net in that first game when he skated down the left side and took Kyle Palmieri's soft pass.
"Just to get my first shot on net, I think, was, 'Wow. I finally made it.'" Etem said. "I take it day-by-day still here, but that was a special moment."
So far everything about Etem suggests he can thrive at this level, particularly with his speed. He was a 61-goal scorer last season with Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League, the first WHL player in 10 years to reach that mark. But for now his skills are being channeled into providing energy and killing penalties.
How easily Etem has adopted his new role hasn't gone unnoticed. Talk to those around him and what stands out most is Etem's maturity and awareness of his place and role within the team.
"Sheldon Souray said the other day," Boudreau said. "He pointed to Emerson and said, 'There's not too many like him anymore,' meaning a young kid that comes up. He's like a sponge and he does whatever you want him to do, no complaints. He's not a prima donna or anything. He's the real deal of a young man."
That can be traced to Etem's background. His parents were athletes, but neither played hockey. Richard rowed and played tennis at the U.S. Naval Academy, and his mother, Patricia, rowed on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
"She's instilled a lot of character in me and obviously what she went through, being an Olympic athlete. I think that it kind of says it right there," Etem said of Patricia. "The hard work she instilled in me, she was there at every practice. I think both my parents just did a great job of telling me to stay humble. I think they're very humble people as well, so that kind of fed off each other and it helped me out quite a bit."
Etem's brother, Martin, got him started in hockey and Etem cut his teeth at Westminster Ice rink, about 20 minutes from Anaheim. He left home at 14 to play for Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Minnesota, beating a path from Southern California to the NHL. His 2010 draft year happened to be at Staples Center, where several other California players were selected.
For Richard and Patricia, who rarely got to see Etem play after he left home, landing in Anaheim was fortuitous. With his parents at all his home games, Etem is embracing the hometown hero role in a town that loves a good storyline.
"I feed off the fans' energy," he said. "If I make a good play and they give me a pretty good ovation, I love that kind of stuff. It makes me feel at home. It makes me feel at home that my friends and family are in the stands night in and night out. It's definitely a good feeling."
Rookie parties aside, Etem hasn't had to do much carrying of bags. On the first day of his first training camp with Anaheim, veteran Todd Marchant symbolically had Etem lead the stretch because he was the youngest player. Other than collecting pucks after practice and waiting for the second elevator at the hotel, there aren't too many rookie rituals taking place.
"We don't do that stuff anymore, not in the NHL, anyway," captain Ryan Getzlaf said with a laugh. "He's a good kid. He's got a good head on his shoulders. He likes to listen, and that contributes to his play on to the ice."
It helps that Anaheim's room features four players 36 or older and four 23 or younger. Etem cites 42-year-old Teemu Selanne as an influence and identifies with Fowler, who was drafted 12th in his year. And despite his ridiculed steakhouse order, the rookie party was a fun, light moment.
"You can gain confidence just off the ice," he said. "It's early on in the year, and when you have something like that I think the vets kind of get to know you a little bit better, and that's where the inside jokes start and you start to feel comfortable with the older guys."
Even in a Chicago steakhouse.
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