Hot Talent on Ice
Memorial’s Ty Emberson is the Valley’s latest high-profile hockey star, and the best may be yet to come
The Eau Claire metro area is known for the following exports on a national level: Leinie’s and Bon Iver. Sure, occasionally there are other things – municipal residential safety rankings, the history of Ann Landers and Dear Abby – but if you ask someone in New England about our city, the beer and the music are what will come first to their lips, following a likely mispronunciation like “Yoo Claire.”
Within a handful of years, another category of export may come to the mind of that hypothetical New Englander: hockey players.
If there is a hockey hotbed to Wisconsin, it is the northwestern part of the state. I say this in spite of the success of schools such as Madison Memorial, Green Bay Notre Dame, and Wausau West, since the concentration of hockey programs is greater the closer you get to The State Of Hockey™, Minnesota. Full-on hockey rivalries can develop among the larger schools, which we saw in the 2000s between Eau Claire North and Memorial, with the Huskies having some frisky battles lately with Chippewa Falls. The Old Abes and Hudson have meanwhile become near-staples at the state tournament, even if they do not bring home the gold every season.
When you have that many competitive hockey teams, you, by definition, must have a higher level of talent dispersed among said teams, and that talent is increasingly making its presence felt in the advanced circuits of the game. The latest example is Memorial’s Ty Emberson, a sophomore defenseman so splendid that he was asked to represent our nation in the Youth Olympics – and a WIAA rule about high school players leaving mid-season for tournament was overturned to allow his comeback for the playoffs. This was out of fairness, obviously, but it didn’t hurt matters that the kid is really good.
Emberson is off to the U.S. Hockey League next year. This junior hockey league has franchises around the Upper Midwest, but one team is the actual USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which means that next season, Emberson will be display his exceptional skating skills in match-ups like “NTDP vs. the Muskegon Lumberjacks” – and this is how he will receive the necessary coaching to perhaps become one of the premier American hockey players, with an NHL career a distinct possibility.
Emberson is the latest of this new wave of Chippewa Valley hockey talent, with players like Jake Dowell, Derrick La Point, Jefferson Dahl, and Jake McCabe making names for themselves at some division beyond the regular prep scene. Dowell and McCabe have seen NHL ice time, while McCabe is doing well this season for the Buffalo Sabres and was recently named to the U.S. national team to play in a world championship this May in Russia. Odds are that in any given season, a skater with an Eau Claire-area connection is playing for a prominent college, a developmental league, a main minor league, or the NHL.
Will we see a Sidney Crosby, a Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, or a Connor McDavid (the top-flight up-and-coming rookie with the Edmonton Oilers – the team that used to have Wayne Gretzky) come from western Wisconsin? The chances are getting better, but one never knows. You could make the argument that Emberson may have the greatest upside of any athlete who has ever skated on the rinks at Hobbs Ice Center. Being part of a gold medal-winning team like this year’s Youth Olympics squad has already put him in the Chippewa Valley hockey pantheon – and, again, right now he is only a sophomore in high school.
Even if Emberson’s career does not become professionally legendary, the fact that I am making this projection at this stage of his career says much about the pipeline of potential in our area. Memorial is a machine, but North is steadily improving, Chi-Hi was scary at times this past year, and the likes of Hudson and New Richmond are adding to the totality of talent. The odds are increasing that we either have seen or will soon see a big-time hockey star develop before our eyes – and national broadcasters like Barry Melrose should probably start brushing up on how to pronounce “Eau Claire.”