It was either 2½ hours or 12½, and it was either too early or just in the nick of time. It all depends upon your point of view, and Jake Elmer is the kind of hockey player who knows where he stands.
Elmer was born on Dec. 31, 1998 - "it was at 9:30," he says, "but whether it was a.m. or p.m. I just don't know." It is a birthdate that by conventional wisdom puts a hockey player at a disadvantage before he even loses the umbilical cord.
"Not a lot of guys are born December 31," Elmer said in an interview with NYRangers.com. "It's a pretty cool little fact about me. And it's always given me something to prove."
Of course, the timing back in 1998 is something that Jake had no control over (his parents, different story), but if the chronology of his life has brought him to the point he is at today, then he doesn't want to complain about one detail. He is right in the thick of the best hockey season of his life, playing for a Lethbridge Hurricanes team that is expected to make a run at a championship. For the week ending March 3, he was named the Western Hockey League Player of the Week, a window of recognition for a season stretch drive during which Elmer has put together a 18-game point streak and scored in 13 straight games.
On Friday he reached a major milestone of his hockey life: At 20 years, 75 days old, Jake Elmer signed a contract with the New York Rangers.
"It's been crazy, it's been such a whirlwind," Elmer said in describing his month of March, and signing with the Rangers. "To think about the history of the Rangers, an Original Six team and such an A-class organization. And it's a pretty incredible city - from what I've heard. I've never been there and I'm really looking forward to getting on the streets of New York, and experiencing that city. I'm so excited to be a part of that."
New York City will be waiting for him when he reports for the Rangers' Development Camp in June. "My personal goal is to be a full-time guy in Hartford next year," Elmer said. "I think that's attainable with a good work ethic off the ice, good nutrition and diet, just committing myself to be the best version of myself I can be."
For now, Elmer's focus is in Alberta - and if the Lethbridge Hurricanes are to have a shot at their first Western League championship since the year before Elmer was born, and a chance at their first-ever Memorial Cup, they'll need their star right winger to just keep rolling.
Lethbridge's weekend sweep in Red Deer and Medicine Hat this weekend closed out the Hurricanes' regular season with eight consecutive wins. They were edged out for their division title by the Edmonton Oil Kings, and will begin the WHL playoffs with a best-of-seven against the Calgary Hitmen, starting Friday on home ice.
"Our team, we're buzzing right now," Elmer said.
This coming from their leading goal-scorer, who had points in each of the last 18 regular-season games, with 35 points over that span. That included that whopping 13-game goal-scoring streak - the longest in the WHL since the last year Lethbridge won the league, in 1996-97 - a monthlong binge during which he scored 17 times. All this after what Elmer himself described as a slow start in junior hockey for a player who truly found his scoring touch that past two seasons.
Which seems fitting for Elmer: He arrives when he arrives.
"I think there was always the potential to be where I'm at. I just had to get the opportunity, and I seized the opportunity this year, and the end of last year also," said Elmer, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound righty shot. "Somebody saw it when I was playing Bantam hockey, and I was drafted to the Western League (by Regina) - and I think it all came down to me seeing the potential in myself also, that I can make an impact in the league and then that I can make an impact in someone's eyes to get a contract. That's what I did here with New York, and I couldn't be more excited to have that opportunity.
"It doesn't hurt," Elmer is quick to add, "when you're playing with a guy like Cozens and Taylor Ross." Dylan Cozens is Elmer's center, an 18-year-old from the Yukon Territory who is the No. 3-ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting, and is expected to be among the top selections in June's NHL Entry Draft.
"Playing with Dylan, he's an extremely high-skilled forward. He's had the mentality since he was little to be the best, and that shows off the ice and on the ice," Elmer said. "I've really focused on surrounding myself with his mentality. I kind of followed it more, how he carries himself off the ice, which I think is a huge testament to his character. That's a good trait to have on a hockey team - we have a lot of pro-mentality players here, and you try to feed off that."
The Ross-Cozens-Elmer trio has combined for 107 goals and 234 points this season, but Elmer not only has developed into a goal-scorer, he concentrates on making himself a complete player. After collecting an assist in Saturday night's win in Medicine Hat to extend his point streak to 18, Elmer then scored his 39th goal of the season in the second period, which held up as the difference, his league-leading 13th game-winner. It was his seventh shorthanded goal, most in the WHL.
"I pride myself on being a good two-way forward, being reliable in the neutral zone and the D zone, being a good killer, and playing smart without the puck," Elmer said. "My skating is my biggest strong suit. I try to use that to my advantage, beating guys wide, beating guys to puck races."
Elmer also prides himself on being a positive force in Lethbridge, which is about a two-hour drive south from Calgary, where Elmer was raised. "I always want to work off the ice to be known as a good person in my community," he said, "because your community comes and supports you."
It's impossible to know how all this would have turned out had Mom and Jake held out until midnight, and into the New Year. Jake would have been one of the oldest kids in a 1999 birth year, rather than playing in an age slot with kids who in some cases have had a 12-month head start on development. And today, if he had turned 20 on Jan. 1, rather than being free to sign an NHL contract he would have had to go through the Entry Draft, and would have one more year of junior eligibility ahead of him.
But if you consider his birthdate a disadvantage from the start, it would not be the last time that Elmer has been able to take his situation and spin it into success.
"It's definitely put a little chip on my shoulder, something to prove," Elmer said. "There's always been doubts, being so young and being so late in an age bracket. But I think that's a positive thing. … It's kind of lit a little fire under me, and allowed me to have something to prove, and I think that's a good thing to have.
"This is something that I wanted. And when you want something, you go out and you work for it."
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