Nelson Emerson is a former Los Angeles Kings player who works in player development for the team. Following a 13-year NHL career as a five-time 20-goal scorer, Emerson spent two seasons as an assistant coach before his current role.
He is involved with the Junior Kings youth program and co-coaches his sons with Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake. Coincidentally, Emerson and Blake were sitting in a dorm room at Bowling Green State University in 1988 when they heard the news that Wayne Gretzky had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
I have twin 12-year-old boys who have been playing youth hockey here since 6 or 7. They're both forwards. One's a goal-scorer and the other's a grinder but they don't play on the same line. They started playing on ice. Some kids do start on roller hockey, but I think now, because of the facilities available, they're able to start on ice earlier.
The facility in El Segundo, where the Kings practice, is very accessible. You can be on the ice six or seven times a week if you want. We also do a lot of travel. We just got back from a big tournament in Detroit. Usually when the top kids play on the top team at their age, they have to travel to get quality opponents.
The talent level of players has always been pretty high, and I think the quantity of players has grown. I think there are more players now. I also believe that there are more players throughout the state. I think the one thing that keeps this going is the fact that there are so many ex-players coaching youth hockey or helping out here in Southern California. It's a hugely positive thing.
The Anaheim Ducks have the Junior Ducks program and quality of coaching led by Craig Johnson, and then up here we have the same dynamic with the Junior Kings. We have two similar models. Both programs are so lucky because they're inundated with ex-players helping out at all the various levels. I think there are only a handful of organizations in the whole country that would have this.
There are so many great talented kids out here in California. You can see it at the very young levels with the 6- and 7-year-olds. They're all focusing on their craft really highly all year long. They're very serious about it. As coaches, the one thing we have to do is ingrain into these talented kids is that the compete level and the puck battle is important.
I was sitting in a dorm room with Blake when the Gretzky trade happened. We didn't get it. We were Canadian kids. We never would have ever thought that our hero would be traded from a Canadian team to L.A. Since Gretzky came here, everything started going in the right direction. It's all from him.