Street vendors are just beginning to set up shop on an early Wednesday morning in Venice Beach, about 20 miles from Los Angeles on the California coast. A couple quietly skates by on the famous boardwalk, looking at the sand that is virtually empty, save for a small group working out together.
|“It just goes back to the strength and getting bigger and stronger," Etem says. "There are so many different things that I have gotten better at over the years.Every day, not only [am I] getting physically stronger, but mentally stronger as well.” |
One of these men is Ducks forward prospect Emerson Etem, clad in gray sweatpants and a red t-shirt. He and four others (including Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Beau Bennett) are going through drills under the guidance of renowned trainer T.R. Goodman. While taking to the sand is more of a bi-weekly routine on the schedule, the bulk of the six-days-a-week training program for Etem takes place a few short blocks away at Pro Camp Sports and Gold’s Gym on the corner of Hampton Drive and Sunset Avenue.Photo Gallery: The Day with Etem
A native of Long Beach, Etem has been making the same trek to Venice to train with Goodman for seven years now and he is still a few weeks short of his 20th birthday. It’s all in an effort to realize his NHL dreams that began when he was just three years old and took up roller hockey at his local YMCA. After leading all of the Canadian Hockey League with 61 goals in 65 games for Medicine Hat this past season, he has never been closer to reaching his goal.
“Right when I entered that office for the first time, it was like a dream,” says Etem of training with Goodman. “Walking in and knowing that this guy has produced a lot of talent and trained all these guys, right then and there, I made the decision to start training with him. Ever since, it’s just been a blast. Every day, not only is he getting me physically stronger, but mentally stronger as well.”
Back from the beach workout, Etem looks around the roughly 1,000-square-foot office of Pro Camp Sports that sits adjacent to the Gold’s Gym. Draping the walls are photos and jerseys of Goodman’s other famous clients over the years, including many hockey players (Chris Chelios, Rob Blake, Mathieu Schneider, Sean O’Donnell, Jiri Hudler) and even Hollywood actors (James Caan, Ray Liotta, Justin Timberlake).
Goodman remembers when the 13-year-old boy from Long Beach came through the doors looking to one day be the next athlete to adorn his office space. “He had this big afro and was about this big around,” Goodman says, holding his hands about six inches apart. “I couldn’t believe that this little kid was going to maybe one day be able to play in the pros.
“At first, we had him with a bunch of young kids. But he was so special that I started to put him with the pros because he had the maturity and could do it. He was like a VCR. He just absorbed it. That is what helped him accelerate so fast.”
After quickly lifting weights inside the larger confines of Gold’s Gym, Etem hops in his newly purchased 2009 white BMW (an upgrade from the 1997 Ford Taurus he had been driving). While on his way back home, he reminisces about how he used to get to the gym before having a car.
About a 2-3 hour one-way trip in all, it would start on rollerblades at his house in Long Beach. He would skate for close to 30 minutes to get to the Green Line train, which he would take to the LAX Aviation station. From there, he would take the Big Blue Bus down Lincoln Boulevard before he skated a few more blocks to the gym. After his workout was complete, he would do it all again to get home.
“I’m just fortunate enough that I was able to have the routes and utilize the city bus system just to get there,” says Etem, who got to the gym that way for four summers. “It’s pretty crazy to see how accurate they get with the bus and public transit.”
Etem arrives at the same place he has called home since he was two, which sits on a small incline in a quiet Long Beach neighborhood. Walking through the front gate, it is quickly apparent a hockey player lives inside these walls. An old net sits in one corner of the patio, several hockey sticks align the wall to the left of a window and Etem’s large Medicine Hat duffel bag sits on a chair.
|“At first, we had him with a bunch of young kids," says Goodman (right) of Etem. "But he was so special that I started to put him with the pros because he had the maturity and could do it. He was like a VCR. He just absorbed it. That is what helped him accelerate so fast.” |
“My brother (Martin) and I got into some battles out here,” Etem says. “It’s actually the same net, kind of beat up. You can see the tiles chipped away from the pucks crashing into them. We have lost tons of pucks. We actually used to take Coca-Cola two-liter plastic jugs, cut them, strap them onto our visors an act like we were NHLers. A lot of good memories are out on this patio. Stuff that I’ll never forget.”
Inside the house, Etem greets his mother Patricia near the kitchen. She was a world class athlete herself, twice making the U.S. Olympic team as a rower (1980, boycott year; 1984, fourth place finish in Los Angeles) and is a member of the Cal-Berkeley Hall of Fame.
All of the Etem family, with the exception of the youngest child Emerson, are in fact rowers. His father, Richard, rowed at the U.S. Naval Academy. Both his older siblings, 25-year-old Martin (Syracuse) and 23-year-old Elise (Cal-Berkeley) excelled in college rowing. Emerson found his calling on ice.
“I’ve never actually been out on a boat,” Etem says. “I’m still waiting to do that. I’m really lucky to stick with (hockey). I started so early and developed a passion and love for the game. Nothing compared to the speed and just the enjoyment I got from it.
“It just started back in roller hockey. I had such a blast. At that time, you don’t think about the money that you can make in the sport. You’re just out there having fun. Right when I turned to ice (hockey), I knew this was the sport I wanted to play for a lifetime. It progressed into the state I’m in right now. It’s a great feeling.”
His love for hockey is obvious in his room at the house. There are team pictures, medals trophies, rings and other items from his career thus far, to go along with a couple of memorabilia items from other players in the sport. A jersey from Shattuck St. Mary’s, a boarding school in Minnesota, hangs prominently on one of his walls.
The hockey program at Shattuck St. Mary’s has become known as a factory for future NHL talent. Among the prominent names to once play for the program include Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Jack Johnson and many other current members of the league. It was at a national tournament in Maryland for his brother that Etem decided he wanted to attend the school, after seeing Crosby and the hockey team in action.
|“I just knew from when he was young, he was destined for something, just because of his passion and focus,” Etem's mother says. “He was a student of the game." |
“You see Sidney Crosby develop and all the names that have come out of there,” Etem says. “That is the place from that point on that I wanted to go. So, I just instantly made the decision there. For those two years, I had a blast and learned a lot. It definitely prepared me for what was to come.”
As a sophomore at Shattuck, Etem joined a select group of players at that age who have made the prep hockey team at the school. He helped lead the club to its second consecutive Tier I Under-17 national championship. It was just the beginning of his journey away from home at such an early age.
“I just knew from when he was young, he was destined for something, just because of his passion and focus,” Patricia Etem says. “He was a student of the game. Going to Shattuck was his vision. It wasn’t ours. He said ‘In order to do that I want to do, you have to move away.’ That was a little bit hard and challenging for me as a mom to send your 14-year-old away. I just thought ‘Okay, he knows it.’ So, we’ll let him go.”
He next packed his bags for Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he played one season for the U.S. National Development Team. He led the team with 19 goals and was briefly teammates with future Ducks Cam Fowler and Kyle Palmieri. “I think my decision going to the National Development program was heavily influenced by my mom being in the Olympics,” said Etem, who has also played with Team USA in the World Junior Championships. “It’s something that I wanted to embrace as well.”
It was onto to the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL for his 2009-10 season and he impressed with a rookie-high 37 goals in 72 games. A top-ranked North American skater after that campaign, he was selected by the Ducks with the 29th overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft held at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“The Ducks wanted me the most and picked me,” says Etem, while sitting next to the jersey that was given to him at the draft podium. “I was fortunate to land where I did, the 29th spot. It was longer than I expected, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. The Ducks, since I have been in this organization, have been nothing but high class.”
Etem has attended training camp in Anaheim twice now and appeared in a total of three exhibition games with the club. But each of the past two Septembers have seen him return to his junior club in Medicine Hat. Though he would have loved to stay with the Ducks, he has only used it as motivation. After 45 goals and 80 points in 2010-11, Etem put up the video game-like 61 goals (including 50 goals in 50 games) and 107 points this past season. Watch Etem's 59th and 60th Goals
|“Right when I turned to ice (hockey), I knew this was the sport I wanted to play for a lifetime," Etem says. "It progressed into the state I’m in right now. It’s a great feeling.” |
“At a goal-a-game pace, you think about some of the greats who have done it,” Etem says. “I felt almost a connection. I really pride myself on that and some of the greats who have done similar accomplishments.
“It just goes back to the strength and getting bigger and stronger. There are so many different things that I have gotten better at over the years. It shows in my goal-scoring ability, but also what I am doing away from the puck in the defensive zone.”
Hockey continues to consume Etem, even as he is back at home in Long Beach after his three-goal, six-game stint with AHL Syracuse at the end of the season. He was brought to Syracuse after his Medicine Hat season ended, to help with a playoff push that ended in the first round. After that, he only took a week and a half off before focusing on his training.
Every morning, except Sunday, the alarm in his room sounds at 5 a.m. He grabs a quick bite of oatmeal prepared by his mom and he’s out the door within 15 minutes. This year he has been carpooling to Venice with his friend and Medicine Hat teammate Matt Konan.
“We get there right before 6 and do our warmup,” Etem says. “We are usually doing our cooldown by around 10-1030. It’s a good four-hour workout. It’s great weather, especially on the weekends. Everyone is out training and having a good time. It’s a really good vibe in the gym.”
Away from the workouts, the main leisure activity for Etem is surfing. He and a childhood friend picked it up about six summers ago and he feels it gives him a great escape. He also considers himself “a big food guy” and likes to sample various local eateries.
|“I do feel that it’s my time, but whatever the Ducks feel is best for my development, I’m going to do,” Etem says. “I have had an open mindset on playing left or right wing. I’m not too worried about that aspect. I just want to go into training camp, work as hard as I can and show them what I got.” |
He finishes off this day at one of his favorite establishments, Nick’s Deli in Seal Beach, where Etem gets what he calls “the best breakfast burrito you can find anywhere” (he may be right). He greets the workers with a smile and a gift, a signed picture of him in a Ducks jersey to display on the wall. His image will likely go alongside that of Mitch Wahl, a Calgary Flames prospect and Seal Beach native.
Sitting near an open window at the restaurant, Etem peers out and thinks about his future. One step in that long-pursued dream is left and he can seemingly taste it. Two other players drafted by the Ducks in that 2010 draft, Fowler and Devante Smith-Pelly, have made their debuts with the club over the last two seasons. He’s hoping that all the hard work and dedication put in over the years in Long Beach, Venice, Minnesota, Michigan and Medicine Hat all land him permanently in his most coveted destination – Anaheim.
“I do feel that it’s my time, but whatever the Ducks feel is best for my development, I’m going to do,” Etem says. “Going back to Medicine Hat has paid off huge. When I look at the top six or top nine forwards, the Ducks are deep in that category. I have had an open mindset on playing left or right wing. I’m not too worried about that aspect. I just want to go into training camp, work as hard as I can and show them what I got.”
Whenever that moment does in fact happen and Etem makes his NHL debut as a member of the Ducks, it will surely be a special moment for him and his family.
Says Patricia, “When that day comes, I will truly be in tears. It will be unbelievable to see a child just reach their dreams. I’ll be grateful for so many people. His agent, trainer, all the teams, the families. It will just be amazing. My parents have been so supportive.”
She pauses. “See,” she says. “I’m already in tears.”
He’ll also be able to take his place on the famed wall in the Pro Camp Sports office where his training will continue, something Goodman is particularly looking forward to. “To see him go from a 13-year-old kid to getting drafted to now being able to go on the ice and really make a difference, how do you get better than that? It’s the ultimate. I’m excited for him and I’m excited for Anaheim.”
Adds Etem, “It’s going to mean the world to me. To finally say I made it, at least for the first time, I have no words to even explain it. The closest and most important people to me will be there.”