DETROIT >> For some hockey players, life is a perpetual elevator ride.
Plying their trade in the American Hockey League, these skaters, such as center Cory Emmerton, wait patiently for their chance at a call up to the big time. Often in the lineup due to an injury on the big club’s roster – the norm this season for Detroit – players are caught in the back-and-forth tide of call-ups and send-backs.
The mental anguish can be exhausting. Not knowing if you’ll be suiting up in front of 20,000 fans at Joe Louis, or 8,000 in Grand Rapids, on a near-daily basis makes life as a professional hockey player difficult.
Five times since 2013, Emmerton has been assigned to – and then recalled from – Grand Rapids. The 150-plus mile journey down Interstate 96 is one that Emmerton has become all too familiar with.
“I-96, I’ve been on that plenty this year,” Emmerton explained. “It’s been, I don’t know how
to really describe it, but it’s been up and down, really. That’s all it has been. You’re up and you’re down. You’re up and you’re down.”
The elevator ride is particularly tough, because it allows for a lot of time for self-reflection. It is not uncommon for these borderline NHL’ers to ask the questions: ‘How can I be better? Why must I always prove myself? When am I going to stick?’
It is a brutal test of mental strength, requiring thick skin and determination.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Emmerton said. “I find it’s been more a mental test. The only thing you can do is prepare yourself each day the same, no matter where you are. The biggest thing is you learn pretty quickly not to worry about it. There’s only certain things you can do yourself.”
Emmerton has had his share of time to prove his worth as a legitimate NHL player. He’s appeared in 138 games for the Red Wings since making his debut in the 2010-11 season – including 17 games this year. Offensive success, however, has been tough for the speedy Emmerton to find. He’s managed just 12 goals and nine assists in his NHL career. In his current seven-game call-up, he has not recorded a point.
With the tug-of-war between realizing his dream and being sent down to the NHL, one might expect Emmerton to be frustrated. However, his focus remains on one thing: Continuing to improve while staying even-keeled about the situation.
“As long as you take care of yourself, and do the things you need to do, the rest of it you can’t realistically change,” Emmerton said.
“You can play your best and hope that you impress some people. You play your best, and your hardest, and you hope for the best. I still enjoy everything. That’s all I can ask for.”
A strong support system is what sustains Emmerton through the rough stretches. The minor leagues are trying: Every AHL players knows he is just one step away. No one wants to be there; everyone must put forth his very best effort. The emotional toll is considerable. That is why the backup from his fiance, friends and family is so important.
“I’ve had good support along the way, so I can’t say I’ve done it all by myself,” Emmerton said. “I’ve had a lot of people there who support me, and help me out daily.”
— FRED COSTELLO