Etem Joins Golden State’s Hockey Revolution

When the Detroit Red Wings played (and lost to) the San Jose Sharks in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, Hockeytown was appalled. How could a team from Michigan, a winter wonderland where there’s ice and snow all the way into the month of April, be beaten by a team from California, a place where some people live their whole lives without seeing a single fluffy white flake?

“They don’t even have real ice there. The kind on sidewalks in the winter, you know?” One Red Wings fan grumbled.

“What kind of hockey team is from Califorrrrrrniaaaaaa?” Another whined.

Little do they know, hockey is starting a revolution in the Golden State.

A look at the list of home states from this year’s draft reveals that eight expected draft picks called California home, as opposed to last year’s three. Emerson Etem, who went 29th overall to the Anaheim Ducks and Beau Bennett, a first-round pick for the Penguins, are proof that California hockey players are no joke. “California is producing some really high-end players,” a Los Angeles-based agent said of this recent trend.

But why now?

Rewind to 1977, when Chris Chelios first started calling Southern California home. He spent the greater part of his formative athletic years there, working out and training until he was good enough to get drafted, play for University of Wisconsin, and eventually play in the NHL. He never played for a California team, but has remained close to the state ever since.

And then there’s Wayne Gretzky, and the trade in 1988 that brought him to the Los Angeles Kings, brought the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals, and, essentially, brought hockey to California. During his tenure with the Kings, ticket sales rose, Californians became hockey fans, and other hockey franchises made their home in California (the Ducks and the Sharks both started up during Gretzky’s time with Los Angeles).

Luc Robitaille has a similar story, going to the Kings in 1986, helping take them to the playoffs, breaking franchise goal records, and retiring to standing ovations in two different California arenas.

Nowadays, Robitaille and Gretzky are finished playing professional hockey entirely, but neither of them have severed their ties with their state. Robitaille is in charge of Business Operations with the Kings. Gretzky is frequently cited as the man who brought hockey to California and serves as the face of the sport, with his time as a King being discussed most prominently. Chelios has a home in California and trains during the offseason with T.R. Goodman at ProCamp Sports, a facility in Venice Beach (something ESPN finds pretty fascinating). They’ve all found a way to stay connected to the state that got them their starts.

Even after the Chelios-Gretzky-Robitaille eras, the hockey revolution in California is still young, but players wishing to be a part of it early have some amazing pioneers to look up to—and live up to. And that is what has started an entirely new breed of legend: the born, raised, trained, and now professional California hockey player named Emerson Etem.

This announcement drew a standing ovation. (dopey5007/Flickr)

After falling from the Top Ten to the 29th pick overall in the draft on Friday, there was no doubt he was a little nervous, sitting there waiting for his name to be called. He was just meant for a California team, because his selection by the Ducks was met with a huge roar from the crowd. Hometown boy goes to hometown club. “I’m so excited,” he said in an interview for Ducks TV, “I can’t wait to give back to California Hockey.” How many eighteen year old boys do you know who care a bit about “giving back?” He said that being a California player and joining a California team was a great opportunity for “growing the game of hockey in California.”

He may not completely realize it yet, but he has a leg-up on the legends he looked up to for so long. Where Chelios grew up in California but left to play hockey and Gretzky and Robitaille ended up in California by chance, Etem is 100 percent California and will now be playing there, which turns him into an even more powerful spokesperson for hockey in his home state. Years from now, after what will hopefully be successful (and long) career with Anaheim, in one of those “giving back to California Hockey”-type speeches we all know he’s going to make, he can say, “look, kids. You can grow up in California, train hard in California, then actually play in California.”

So save your breath if you’re planning on whining about “hockey teams from Califorrrrrnniaaaaaaa,” again. Because they’re only going to get better, especially if Emerson Etem has anything to say about it.

-Devon Barrett

Read more from me on my blog, Embellishment!

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3 Comments

  1. Ducks got a steal with Etem falling all the way to 29th. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he develops as a pro – I had the chance to see him play with the USNTDP U-17’s two seasons ago.

    Perhaps the best thing to come from hockey expanding into the warm weather, “non-traditional hockey markets” is the expansion of the talent pool in the United States. No longer are players developing in just Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Michigan. The development of youth hockey at the grass-roots level can be directly linked to Gretzky’s arrival in L.A. and the NHL’s expansion in the 90’s/early 2000’s. Now we’re starting to see players coming from areas no one would’ve ever thought of, and it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to USA Hockey. Prospects like Etem, Jonathon Blum (drafted 24rd overall by Nashville in 2007 – the first born-and-bred Californian to be drafted into the NHL in the 1st round – and will likely be in a Preds sweater next season), and Blake Geoffrion (this year’s Hobey Baker Award winner – born in Florida, raised in Tennessee, property of Nashville) are proof that the U.S.’s hockey future will stretch from sea to shihing sea. Being from Michigan, I think it’s a great thing to see.

  2. I seriously cannot believe I didn’t put that in here. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it to be spiteful. It just never entered my mind while I was toiling over finding a way to make the story flow. All the more reason for the Ducks to win another one!
    And bear with me. It’s my first article. :)

  3. I find it very interesting that in an article about a home-grown California player being drafted by a California hockey team (the Anaheim Ducks), Barrett failed to mention that the Ducks won the Stanley Cup. It’s mentioned that the San Jose Sharks made the playoffs this season and that with Gretzky the Kings once got as far as the Stanley Cup Finals. However, it was never mentioned that not only did the Anaheim Ducks reach the Cup Finals twice but the team took home the Cup in 2007. That, more than anything, underscores just how far hockey has come here in California, and I think that not reminding readers that the Ducks are Cup Champions is a terrible omission.

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