Cory Emmerton is determined to take his career day-by-day and continue to prove that he can be a valuable two-way player at the NHL level.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Cory Emmerton is not taking anything for granted. When it comes to professional sports, he knows that nothing is given, everything is earned, and there are no guarantees.
At the age of 25, the young Red Wings center has already learned the harsh realities of the business. Faced with salary-cap issues and too many forwards, Detroit placed Emmerton on waivers before the season with the intention of sending him back to Grand Rapids, where he had begun his pro career in 2007.
After two full seasons in Detroit, including last year when he was one of only four players to dress for all 48 Red Wings games, Emmerton thought he had shown he was a capable NHL player. But he was now on his way to the minors – a victim of Detroit's roster crunch.
"The waiting is the hard part," he said of being placed on waivers. "You can end up anywhere. I was just hoping to be picked up and get a chance to stay in the NHL, somewhere new, somewhere I could develop new roots. And then nothing happened."
To his relief, 36 hours later he was back to Detroit, where he found himself in the starting lineup for the Red Wings' season opener after the organization decided to put Patrick Eaves on long-term injured reserve.
Emmerton assisted on the Red Wings' first goal of the season, then later was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down on a breakaway. He played three more games in Detroit before he was finally sent to Grand Rapids to make room for Luke Glendening's NHL debut.
He eventually would be recalled by Detroit for a five-game stint in December, then again in mid-January when Joakim Andersson was sidelined with a lower body injury. Through it all, Emmerton never moped, never slacked off. He only worked harder.
"Every day is a new opportunity," Emmerton said. "It's all about choosing the right attitude. You want to stay positive, have the right mindset and do what you can to prove yourself – and that's all I'm trying to do."
Last season was a pivotal year for Emmerton. He was coming off his first full NHL season, having played in 71 games with the Red Wings in 2011-12 following a minor league stint that saw him play 217 games in a Griffins uniform over the course of three-plus seasons. Then the lockout happened, which put his development on indefinite hold.
"I was kind of stuck," he recalled. "I was a young NHL player who couldn't go to the minors without clearing waivers, and there were so many veterans going to Europe that there weren't many teams with spots open for guys like me. It was hard.
"We skated every day in the Detroit area, but it's like practice. Practice is one thing and a game is a whole other world. Then I went to Finland and ended up getting hurt (a broken finger in his first game). Everything was a mess until the season started."
Emmerton worked extra hard with a trainer in Detroit so that he would be ready to play after the NHL owners and players settled their differences.
"We had a younger team and with all the injuries, it was a good year for growth for a lot of people," Emmerton said. "We kept battling, and to win the first round (against the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks) was huge. When we took the eventual Cup winners (Chicago Blackhawks) to Game 7 in overtime, well, you don't forget those moments.
"I thought, 'I'll take all the experience I gathered and try to put it to good use.'"
When he was first sent to Grand Rapids earlier this year, Emmerton was disappointed but not down. It helped that he was returning to a familiar environment, even though many of the faces had changed from three years earlier.
"Tommy McCollum was one of the few players still here, but I knew Dogg (Griffins' equipment manager Brad Thompson) and (assistant coach) Jimmy Paek, plus I knew Blash (Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill) from my first year in Detroit when he was an assistant there. I knew a lot of the front office people, which makes it an easier transition."
The hard part was reacquainting himself with the AHL game.
"The biggest thing is the pace," he said. "It's a different league, a different style of play. I think it took me a few weeks to adjust before I felt comfortable and could play the way I like to see myself playing. Of course, it helped that the Griffins have such a good team here."
The Griffins had failed to make the playoffs during Emmerton's last two seasons in Grand Rapids, so he readily admits that he was more than pleased to be walking into a regular spot with the defending Calder Cup champions.
"Everyone is awesome, from the veterans to the young kids who are eager to play and improve every day," he said. "In pro sports, winning is everything. They won it all last year, and the team has continued that trend this year by continuing to play good hockey and be successful.
"When you don't make the playoffs, that's a long summer of missing hockey at a time when other young players are getting to play and develop in hard situations. The best thing you can do is win and learn what it takes to win.
"When you have people who like what they're doing and are happy to be a part of a team, it makes for a good environment, and that's going to be good for the development of young hockey players who are trying to learn what it takes."
On a team already blessed with a number of veterans – Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch, Brennan Evans and Triston Grant – Emmerton was happy to assume a quiet leadership role.
"The biggest thing for me after coming here was to do my part. Those guys were here last year, and they know what they're doing and what they're talking about. I don't have to be necessarily verbal. For me, it's more of an on-ice thing – doing the right things and showing it on the ice."
Emmerton credits the Griffins’ coaching staff with making sure the team is prepared for every game.
"You look at Jimmy Paek and you can see why he's been coaching here so long. He's such a good person. He cares about everyone. He's out there every day teaching, pulling people aside. He did that with me when I was younger."
Emmerton had a similar experience during Blashill's one season as an assistant coach in Detroit.
"He helped me a lot my first year, talking to me and helping me do the right things," he said. "We had a good relationship in Detroit, and that was good for me when I came back to Grand Rapids. He's in a different role now, and you can see that he's a big reason why this team has had so much success. Of course, it doesn't hurt that there's a lot of talent here, too.
"As a head coach, you still have to put players in the right situations and get them to perform. I think he's done a good job of figuring out what works for different guys, because not everyone is the same and not everyone responds to the same things. That's the trick you have to learn as a head coach. Just from being here for a while, I can see he knows what he's doing."
Emmerton tallied one goal and eight assists in his first 14 games with the Griffins. Over the next 17 games, he recorded nine goals and 11 assists, registering at least one point in all but three games during the stretch.
"I told myself to stay positive – at least I was getting the opportunity to play on a good team and play a lot," he said. "Winning is fun. Everybody feels better when you win. That much never changes in any sport."
Blashill has nothing but good things to say about how Emmerton has handled his situation. "Cory has had a great attitude," he said. "He's ingratiated himself to the team and bought into helping us win. His game has been very, very good."
With the Griffins, Emmerton gets to play more minutes in one game than he might play in two or three games in Detroit, where he is usually relegated to the fourth line.
"When your ice time is limited, you're really just surviving as a hockey player," Blashill said. "Now he's playing on one of our top two lines and, as his role has increased, it's allowed him to really show his offensive ability."
Emmerton has blossomed, showing the signs of real offensive skill that led the Red Wings to choose him in the second round (41st overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft
"With increased ice time comes increased responsibility, and Cory's done a lot of things to help us win a lot of games," Blashill said. "He can skate well, has good poise with the puck, has a good head for offense and can make a play. He's been an absolute complete player for us, playing on the power play and penalty kill as well."
In short, Emmerton has done everything asked of him, and he's managed to keep his head on straight at the same time.
"I don't know if people understand how hard it is to move even a few hours away," Emmerton said. "You have everything in one place and sometimes at a moment's notice you have to move. That's the downside of professional sports. But I'm not complaining. After all, that's what you sign up for."
Emmerton says he is thankful that he has the full support of his fiancée, Suzy Richardson. The couple are planning to get married next summer, probably in the Detroit area, which is halfway between his hometown of London, Ontario, and Grand Rapids, which is her hometown.
"She's handled all the moving and stuff, so she's had a lot of work to do," Emmerton said. "I have the easy job of just focusing on myself and playing hockey. I know all of the guys with significant others really rely on them to take care of things away from the rink."
Not knowing what tomorrow will bring can be both terrifying and thrilling. Again, Emmerton prefers to look on the bright side.
"Very few players get to stay in one place forever," he said. "Wherever you end up, you have to look at it as another life experience because getting to travel all over the world can be exciting. When people ask about my situation, I tell them I'm just living it day-by-day. The best thing is I'm having fun, just like everyone else here."