A lot has changed in the short amount of time since Emerson Etem last wore a Ducks jersey. He became a husband and a recent father, and has already played for two other NHL clubs since the Ducks traded him two summers ago. He's dealt with optimism, pessimism and criticism throughout his brief professional career. But he also knows that life has a strange way of working itself out.
Etem could never seem to play a consistent brand of hockey during his three years in Anaheim, and was dealt to the New York Rangers along with a second-round draft pick on June 27, 2015 in exchange for Carl Hagelin and two draft picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. He only played 19 games with the Rangers before they traded him to the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 8, 2016 for Nicklas Jensen and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. He signed a one-year extension with the Canucks this past June, but didn't make the opening night roster, and was ultimately placed on waivers on October 12.
That's when the Ducks put in a waiver claim and brought the local boy back home.
"It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks," says Etem, who joined the Ducks on their current five-game road trip. "My baby boy was born September 30th. It definitely puts everything into perspective. It's not easy moving, but I couldn't be happier. My family couldn't be happier. It's awesome to have my family and support system around me to help take some pressure off."
It wasn't too long ago when Etem was the feel-good story from the 2010 NHL Draft held at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Etem was predicted by some to get taken in the first round, but it wasn't until the second-to-last pick when he heard his name, and it was Anaheim's Executive Vice President/General Manager Bob Murray who announced it at the podium.
Etem became the highest drafted Southern California born-and-trained player in Ducks history, and quickly became a fan favorite and inspiration for locals of all ages. He, along with Gardena native Beau Bennett (who, in the same draft, became the highest-selected California born-and-trained player in NHL history) proved that you didn't have to be from Canada, the Midwest, Northeast, or anywhere other than California - specifically Southern California - to "make it."
The kid from Long Beach who cut his teeth playing roller hockey at a nearby YMCA before transitioning to ice hockey in Lakewood is back. And as Etem puts it, there's no place quite like home.
"It's definitely exciting," Etem says. "My family is excited. My wife [Danette] gave birth two weeks ago to a baby boy [Laulo]. Things are really falling into place. Fans have always been great to me here. Ducks fans have been awesome and supportive. The outreach of support they've shown over the past couple of days and even previously when I was playing for the organization, nothing but positivity.
"It's such a good feeling to come back to something like that," Etem says. "They've seen highs and lows in my career here, and I'm definitely going to try to create more highs this time around. I want to give them something to cheer about. When the Ducks picked me up… what an opportunity."
His highest of highs as a Duck might've been his brilliant individual effort in Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference First Round series against the Winnipeg Jets in front of a hostile crowd at MTS Centre. He dusted Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba with a nifty toe drag that left the usually steady blueliner on his hands and knees before placing a backhanded chip shot over the glove of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. The goal tied the game late in the first period, and the Ducks went on to eliminate the Jets when the final buzzer sounded.
Etem went on to score two more goals in the playoffs, including a deflection in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Etem thought he was getting a fresh start when he moved to New York to play for the Rangers, but quickly realized, for whatever reason, it wasn't a good fit. He managed only three assists in 19 games with the Rangers at the start of the 2015-16 season before they sent him packing to Vancouver, where, again, he thought he was getting a new beginning.
Etem was reunited with Willie Desjardins, his former head coach with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League and current bench boss for the Canucks. Etem put up 12 points (7g/5a) in 39 games with Vancouver after being acquired, which wasn't bad, but a far cry from the player he was projected to become after lighting up the WHL for 143 goals and 252 points in 202 regular-season games, including a 61-goal effort in his final season.
His best stretch of games with the Canucks came in the final month of the season, when he posted five points (4g/1a) over five games.
After a subpar performance in the recent preseason, the Canucks placed Etem on waivers on October 12th with the intention of sending him down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Utica. Etem's a humble man by nature, and knew it came with the job.
"It's part of the business," he says. "You hear it all the time, and lots of guys go through it. It's nice to know [the Ducks] liked what they saw at times. They know I can do it on a more consistent level. Just that belief in me is a great feeling. It gives me a lot of confidence. I know what to expect from myself. I'm going put it all together and have some fun."
He's reunited with former teammates, including his close friend Cam Fowler.
"He's got tons of talent," Fowler said recently in an interview with Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register. "Just needs to harness it the right way and he can be an impact player for us for a long time. He's always got a way of kind of brightening up the room."
And while he may never turn out to be a kind of goal scorer he was in juniors, Etem referenced several late bloomers who have found success in the present - and past.
"You look at Mike Hoffman with the Senators, who was a late bloomer," Etem says. "Even if you go back to Markus Naslund. He kinda struggled offensively, production-wise, his first few years. Or even [Justin] Abdelkader in Detroit, a guy who I feel like I can potentially play like. Hard-nosed, getting to the net, and getting those dirty, greasy goals and finishing checks. I can definitely bring that to the team. Ultimately, what they see in me, the front office here, they've let me know right away what they want.
"With this being my third organization and coming back here, it's one of those things where you learn a lot wherever you go," he says. "I'm here to make the most of my opportunity. It's nice having that comfort level knowing the guys and training staff already. I want it to all come together here."
Welcome home, Emerson.