In today's hockey world, you'll notice the speed and precision of many undersized forwards. But 20 years ago, being 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds made it harder to succeed in a League of heavy-hitters. Nelson Emerson, however, was just quick enough to dodge the big guys and too skilled with the puck to ignore, which is why he was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1985.
After his draft day, the forward went on to play four years at Bowling Green State University, where he earned a college degree. He then played just over a season with the St. Louis minor-league affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, under then-coach Bobby Plager. That year, the team would go on to win the prized Turner Cup.
Though he only played less than two full seasons in the Blue Note, Emerson went on to have a successful 12-year NHL career, tallying 488 points.
We caught up with him at Plager's jersey retirement ceremony to find out what it meant to start his professional career in St. Louis and what he's up to now.
BLUES: You came back to St. Louis for Bobby Plager's jersey retirement. What was it like to play under him?
EMERSON: It was excellent, especially since our team was successful. We had a lot of excellent players, but I think the reason we ended up so successful was because of Bobby. From the beginning of the year right to the end, I think he is the biggest reason we won the Tuner Cup.
BLUES: Aside from Plager, are there any other people from the organization that you keep in touch with?
EMERSON: Yeah, actually a lot because this is the first team I played for. So St. Louis has a special place in my heart and in my career. Kelly Chase was exceptional here, and we were really good friends right from the start because we were in the minors together, played in Peoria and came up to St. Louis to start our NHL careers. So he's someone I make sure to keep in touch with, and I owe a lot of what happened to me to him.
BLUES: You said St. Louis is special to you. Do you have a favorite memory here?
EMERSON: My best memory was the playoff series when we played against Chicago. Even to this day when we watch clips on TV and they talk about rivalries and special moments in the NHL… Well the St. Louis/Chicago rivalry was just hard to even explain… the emotion and character that was on the ice at that time. And the fact that we were able to beat them one year… just great memories.
BLUES: Since retiring you've been involved with the Los Angeles Kings organization, originally working as an assistant coach, and now as the director of player development. What's it like to be on that side of the game?
EMERSON: I'm lucky to get a job like that. The fact that I'm able to be with young players, and once they're drafted I'm able to kind of help mold them into NHL players, it's so rewarding. When you can take an 18-year-old and follow his career for the next three or four years… you just watch him learn, and grow and mature, and once you see him accomplish his dreams and win it's very rewarding.
BLUES: Are there any lessons coaches taught you during your playing days that you try to pass along to your prospects having been in their shoes?
EMERSON: Bobby taught all of us through his messages throughout the year that you have to respect the game. That means respecting your teammates, respecting the players you're playing with, and if you don't, you won't be successful. He helped us all along with that message, and I think that's the biggest thing that any player could ever learn. Respect the game itself.
BLUES: On top of developing prospects, you also coach your kids' hockey teams. How fun is that?
EMERSON: It's fun, and it's awesome to be around the kids. I coach out in Los Angeles., the Junior Kings, but we play against the Junior Blues a lot and they're a tremendous organization. I have twin boys and I've been doing it with them since they were six and seven, but now they're 16… it goes by so fast. You have to enjoy it. And what's really special is when I'm with my boys, and we go play against St. Louis and I see Al MacInnis and Scott Mellanby and Kelly Chase... guys who are around the game. St. Louis had five boys drafted in the first round last year, and it's easy to see why.
BLUES: Outside of hockey, what else is the family up to?
EMERSON: Although I've always said St. Louis is the best place to be a professional athlete, we've definitely adapted to the L.A. culture. I've been there 16 years now, and you have to take to the surroundings, so we surf. I get in the water very early in the morning, usually at about 6:30 a.m., and surf everyday. So we've taken to the L.A. living… it's different, it's nice and great way to live your day.