Griffins center Cory Emmerton hopes to meet the jumbo expectations that accompany being a second-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. " – Groucho Marx
Once known as the “Railway Capital of Canada,” St. Thomas, Ontario, is generally recognized for two distinguishing facts: it’s the birthplace of Joe Thornton, the National Hockey League star, and the site of the death of Jumbo the elephant, the oversized star of Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Detroit Red Wings prospect and St. Thomas native Cory Emmerton wouldn’t mind being considered the proverbial elephant in the room, the one guy that people just can’t overlook.
He notes that while there is no monument yet to Thornton’s talents, there is a life-size statue of Jumbo, who died there on September 15, 1885 when he was hit by a locomotive.
The statue was erected in 1985 in honor of the centennial of Jumbo’s demise and three years before Emmerton was born in this small town where more than 100 trains once passed on a daily basis.
“I’m not sure how many people actually check it out, but it’s like our little tourist attraction,” Emmerton said. “It’s not like it towers over the city, but when you come into town, you can’t miss it. If you come to St. Thomas, you have to see it.”
Every summer, Emmerton returns to his birthplace of St. Thomas to prepare for another hockey season. His only quest is to better himself and earn a regular job in the same league where Thornton has already made a name for himself.
Emmerton works out under the tutelage of Scott Paton, an elite personal trainer who has previously guided the offseason regimen of Thornton and other NHL players.
This past summer, he worked out with Justin Azevedo, a Los Angeles Kings prospect with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, and Patrick McNeill, a Washington Capitals candidate with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
“We’re three guys who are all trying to make big steps this year,” Emmerton said. “It was good because we pushed each other and had a really good summer together.”
All of their free time was not spent in the weight room. Emmerton and Azevedo put together a couple of teams of local players for the summer, so there were plenty of scrimmages and shinny to keep them occupied.
“We played a series that ran all summer,” Emmerton said. “I was one of the GMs and Justin was the other. We had a draft, and there were a couple of free agents who popped up during the summer, but the teams stayed the same for the most part. My team won, so maybe I have some GM abilities.
“Who knows? (Griffins general manager) Bob McNamara might have to watch out. I might take over.”
Fun aside, Emmerton worked diligently during the summer to improve his lower body strength while doing everything possible to retain his foot speed.
“It’s one thing to gain weight and try to get stronger, but the toughest thing is to not lose a step,” he said. “It’s a long process, but at the same time, it’s your job. I’d rather wake up and worry about that than do something else.”
Emmerton hopes he is laying the groundwork for what will be a long career in the NHL.
“I feel like I’m a slow grower in terms of my physical maturity, so I don’t know how old I’ll be when I hit my peak,” Emmerton said. “Whenever it happens, I want to reach my maximum potential.”
Last season was his first full year in the pro ranks, having previously made brief appearances with the Griffins during the tail end of the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
According to Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill, “half the year was great, half the year was a learning experience" for Emmerton, who winces at the assessment but doesn’t shy away from the fact that he hopes to show noticeable improvement in his second year.
“He’s exactly right – you can’t hide from the truth,” Emmerton said. “Every year you’re going to learn more. It’s all part of the development process.”
Emmerton knows he will have to pay his dues in Grand Rapids as the Red Wings insist they will not rush their prospects when it comes to preparing them for the NHL.
“It’s all about progressing, not just every season but every practice, every game, just playing better and basically improving day by day,” he said. “It’s about getting better as a person and as a player.
Although he would rather be playing in the NHL, Emmerton admits there is no disputing the Red Wings’ methods when it comes to developing players.
“Every year they get 100+ points and they haven’t missed the playoffs in 19 years. Of course you’d like to be playing and get that chance to be an everyday player in the NHL, but they’re very fair.
“If you’re playing very well and they need to call somebody up, they’ll call you up and give you that chance like they’ve done with (Darren) Helm and (Justin) Abdelkader.
“They want you to be ready to play every day and a lot of young guys aren’t ready for that. It’s the consistency thing – being ready every practice and every game. Sometimes people are rushed and it doesn’t always work out so well.”
Emmerton experienced his share of growing pains during the first half of the 2008-09 season. He was scratched seven times in the Griffins’ first 45 games and didn’t score his first goal until his 22nd contest.
“More than anything, I was a little frustrated,” he said. “I was getting a lot of chances, but for some reason the shots weren’t hitting the spots. It was really an up-and-down year, where sometimes you play great and other times you can’t do anything.”
He finally seemed to find himself last February. In 13 games during the month, he tallied four goals and six assists, and he finished the season with 35 points, the 10th-highest total ever for a Griffins rookie.
“I learned a lot and grew a lot as a player,” he said. “I learned how to be mentally strong, how to deal with the tough schedule, the level of competition and all the travel. It was probably the biggest step I’ve taken in my career.”
Emmerton knows a lot of eyes will be on his performance this season. While the Red Wings aren’t counting on him to be an overnight success, the organization has jumbo expectations for him.
“They expect big things from me this year,” he said. “They want me to compete every night and try to be the best player out there. They want me to to take an even bigger step than I did last year.”
Emmerton has seen what effort can mean. One of his workout partners (McNeill) returned home this summer with a Calder Cup championship.
“It would be nice to win a championship,” he said. “Obviously, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but it’s something you’ll never forget. Everybody likes winners, so if you can be on a winning team, it’s going to help you along the way.
“The better the team does here, the better I think I’ll do.”
In the meantime, Emmerton will be patient, waiting for his opportunity to make a name for himself in the NHL and, hopefully, back home.
“Some people may think it’s frustrating (waiting for a call-up) but at the same time you have something to look forward to. It’s the opportunity to play for a storied franchise, the best in the NHL. If you can make a team like the Detroit Red Wings, you’d like to think you could make most teams in the NHL.”
It’s all about making a positive impression.
“Until that time comes, you have to be patient and work hard,” he said. “The Red Wings are always around, watching, giving you a lot of feedback. They let you know what you’re doing wrong and what they expect from you.
“It’s not like they leave you hanging without telling you anything. They’re always watching and talking to you.”
Emmerton hopes to make even more of an impact where it counts: on the scoresheet. He admits that he needs to work on shooting more.
“That’s always been on my agenda,” he said. “I’ve learned that I don’t have to wait for the perfect shot. Sometimes you can get points and contribute to the team by shooting and going for the rebound.
“You don’t have to look for the cute play. Just get it on net and get those dirty goals that even guys like (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg get. Obviously they score highlight-reel goals, but they also score as a result of outworking someone.
“I’m going to try to be grittier and get to the net a lot more this year. I guess you could call it mucking and grinding, but I’m still going to try to bring my creativity and skill.”
Emmerton comes into his second season as a more confident player.
“I feel a lot different, even this early,” he said. “I need to be leader even if it’s not necessarily in a captain’s role. I went through a lot of things last year and I think it will be good if I can help some of the younger guys who just came in.”
He thinks his own career will benefit if he proves he can be a difference maker.
“Playing in the NHL is a dream, for sure, but at the same time I’ve got to worry about playing here and being a go-to guy because they want someone who will help the team, not just fill a role. They want you to be ready when the opportunity comes and you’ve got to take full advantage of it when it happens.”