Ty Emberson had to rely on instincts and think quickly on his feet.
Good thing he’s well versed in that.
It was a pre-draft interview with one of the 20 teams he sat down with last month at the NHL scouting combine in Buffalo for the top 100 players in the world.
He had answered all the traditional questions. Why would you make a good fit for our team? Why should we draft you? The ones he expected to answer.
But he was also told to prepare for any kind of question.
So when a team asked him more of a psychological question — “What kind of animal best represents you?” — Emberson was ready.
“I just thought on the spot and said lion,” said Emberson with his usual smile. “You know, king of the jungle.”
King of the jungle. Protector of the defensive zone. It made perfect sense.
Emberson, an 18-year-old defenseman born and raised in Eau Claire, will more than likely become the fifth player from the city to be taken in the NHL Draft, held Friday and Saturday in Dallas.
Projected anywhere from a mid-second to late-third or early-fourth round pick, Emberson will join Andy Akervik, Jake Dowell, Derrick LaPoint and Jake McCabe as Eau Claire natives making the walk down the aisle to put on an NHL sweater.
His highlight-reel might not get the clicks on YouTube as projected top picks Rasmus Dahlin and Brady Tkachuk garner.
But whichever of the 31 NHL teams select the University of Wisconsin recruit, they’ll be getting a guy who is willing to do the dirty work and reacts well from his defenseman’s position.
“He’s not the most glamorous pick in this NHL Draft,” said Seth Appert, coach of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program U18 team. “But I guarantee you he will be playing at the NHL level a lot longer than guys picked ahead of him.”
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While wearing the purple and white for Eau Claire Memorial in 2015 and 2016, Emberson was a man among boys. Even as an underclassman. He could clear the zone by skating goal line to goal line. He was that much better.
But he learned what role suited him best while playing against other worldly talent the last two years with the USNTDP.
Emberson, strong and sturdy at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, played with a lot of offensive-minded defensemen. Especially this past winter.
As Ben Kerr of Last Word on Hockey wrote in his scouting report of Emberson, he’s “very much a stay-at-home type” of defenseman. When teammates in the defensive core would jump up to join a rush, Emberson was often the one who stayed back.
While a growing number of defensemen are threats in the offensive zone, there’s still plenty of players in the NHL who make a living playing this style. Brooks Orpik of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals is one such player, while ex-Badgers Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Suter are others.
“I think every NHL team needs a defenseman like that, so I’m happy to fill that role,” Emberson said.
For Appert this winter, Emberson was often on the ice against the other team’s top line and was considered “the rock” of the defense. In 61 games, Emberson had four goals, 23 assists and a plus-14 rating.
One of his strengths is flushing forwards out of the slots and out wide.
He did to perfection at the high school level, something not lost on his former teammate and Old Abes goalie Trevor Hudecek. That and playing mostly error-free hockey.
“The main thing was that he never made mistake,” said Hudecek, Memorial’s all-time leader in wins. “You’ll see defensemen turn it over in the slot, but he never seemed to make that mistake. He never went into the corners and kicked out a puck to the middle.”
This winter, Emberson was one of Team USA’s top penalty killers. He frequently played on the top penalty killing line and had a knack for sacrificing his body and working hard against the boards to secure the puck and flip it out of the zone.
“I think the penalty kill is willingness to do miserably hard things for the success of the team,” Appert said. “There’s not a lot of limelight to the penalty kill. It’s a lot of blocked shots, puck battles and outcompeting your opponent.”
If one were to YouTube Emberson looking for pre-draft highlights, he or she would probably get directed to a big hit of his. Emberson used his physicality at the national level perhaps more than folks in Eau Claire saw at Hobbs two years ago. Again, his instincts take over when he decides to square someone up in the open ice or put them against the boards. Just like a lion searching for prey.
“It’s just a hockey sense thing,” Emberson said. “You can’t run around looking for hits. You have to let them come to you. If they are there, I’ll take my opportunities.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing, as draft boards have pointed out, is his lack of time in the penalty box despite his physical game and being on the ice against the other team’s top forwards. Emberson drew 46 penalty minutes last season, a low number for 61 games played at his position.
“It’s actually really impressive,” Appert said. “Most young defensemen who are extremely physical and pride themselves on that, they don’t have the physical or emotional maturity to stay out of the box. He has that knack of having a physically imposing presence without crossing the line. I think he’s really comfortable and confident playing that way.”
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Whichever team requests the services of the young man who digs gyros at Olympic Flame on London Road won’t just be getting a player. It will get a personality too. And there aren’t many better ones around than Emberson.
“He’s a first-class human being. That’s first and foremost,” Appert said. “As good as a hockey player as he is, he’s a better human being. He comes from a great family and comes from a great foundation. He has such a high level of integrity and character to him. He’s extremely valuable.”
Emberson wore the alterante captain’s patch as a sophomore at Memorial, somewhat of an unprecedented feat considering how many strong players have come through that program.
“Not only is he an insanely nice and great all around person, he’s one of the most mature and well-rounded people I’ve ever met,” Hudecek said. “He made sure every single hockey player was getting the same experience, and that’s what you need as a captain. He made sure people knew they belonged just as much as he did.”
He’s worn the ‘A’ on his jersey for Team USA too. He was an alternate captain for the gold-medal winning team at the Youth Olympics in 2016 and at the IIHF U18 World Championships this spring in Russia, where Team USA took second.
“I take pride in the kind of person I am and take pride in treating people the way I want to be treated,” he said when asked to make a sales pitch for himself. “So I’ll always show up to the rink in a positive manner to make myself and teammates better.”
Before he goes to the NHL Draft, he’ll get a chance to hone his game at the college level with Wisconsin.
The Badgers have had a strong track record of churning out NHL defensemen, including former Memorial skater and current Badger Jake McCabe, whom Emberson reminds the Wisconsin coaching staff of.
“He’s someone who is a solid, steady, dependable defenseman who will be a leader here,” UW assistant Mark Osiecki told UWBadgers.com on National Signing Day.
Emberson watched the Capitals run to the Stanley Cup and was entertained by the celebration and blown away by the turn out at the parade in D.C.
When he was a kid, he watched as a fan. Now, especially after interacting with so many professional teams this past year, he watches with a certain hunger. He hopes he’s helping whichever team chooses him in Dallas get that feeling.
For now, Emberson will shake Commissioner Gary Bettman’s hand whenever his name gets called next weekend.
He won’t make that walk alone, though. He’ll have his hometown of Eau Claire — where his hockey journey began — with him at every step down the aisle.
“It’s amazing being able to grow up in a hockey community like Eau Claire and know people are always going to be rooting for you,” Emberson said. “It’s just amazing having the whole city of Eau Claire behind me.”