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November 30, 2012

Matt Smaby and Emerson Etem: Admirals Teammates Linked By High School Experiences

by Dan Marrazza

On the surface, it wouldn't appear that Norfolk Admirals teammates Emerson Etem and Matt Smaby have very much in common.

After all, the California-born Etem is an up-and-coming, 20-year-old forward in his first full professional season while the Minnesota-born Smaby is a veteran, 28-year-old defenseman who has played for the Admirals under each of their two most recent NHL affiliations.

However, besides being current teammates, the thing that links Etem and Smaby is that they both are alumni of the same high school — Shattuck St. Mary's in Faribault, Minnesota.

Shattuck St. Mary's is a boarding school 55 miles south of Minnesota's Twin Cities that arguably has a better track record for developing hockey players than any other high school in the United States. Besides Etem and Smaby, its notable alumni include Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, Jack Johnson, Ryan Malone and dozens of other current professional hockey players.

But for all of Shattuck's success in developing hockey players, it's equally famous for the life-long bonds its students form that grant those who attend the school the opportunity to communicate through a virtual secret language of inside jokes, stories and shared experiences.

The mystique of Shattuck is so alluring that it was once chosen as a model for the fictional "Eden Hall Academy" in the third installment of the Mighty Ducks trilogy, which was largely filmed on Shattuck's campus in early 1996.

Matt Smaby/Photo by Rob Twine"I remember having seen the movie before I ever attended the school," said Smaby, a 2003 Shattuck graduate. "There are little scenes that you see in the dining hall that I immediately recognized from the movie when I started going to school there.

"Going to school there is similar to the movie in a sense," added Smaby. "It's a competitive place, but we all got along for the most part—not like the movie. We pulled pranks, but not on the level of what they did in the movie."

Although Smaby won't admit to unleashing fire ants in his teammates' dorm rooms or lassoing anybody on the school's front lawn like his cinematic predecessors, he was quick to share a story so wild that even Disney couldn't have thought it up.

"I played with Sidney (Crosby) my last year at Shattuck," said Smaby. "Jack (Johnson) and he were playing JV baseball that spring since you have to play a sport during every season. Let's just say that those two chose to bring too much hockey to the baseball field."

Smaby's reference to NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Jack Johnson bringing "too much hockey to the baseball field" alludes to the time that Johnson stormed off the bench and tackled an opposing pitcher right on the mound in retaliation for a wayward pitch that beaned Crosby.

"I remember being at school when that happened," said Smaby. "Now, it's actually pretty funny for me to think about."

Although Johnson's muscle clearly aided Crosby on the baseball field, the current Penguins captain more than carried his weight in his only season playing hockey at the school. He posted 162 points (72g, 90a) in 57 games as a 14-year-old freshman with a particular Shattuck squad that also featured current Buffalo Sabre Drew Stafford and current Adirondack Phantom Matt Ford.

Emerson Etem/Photo by Rob Twine"Growing up, I remember attending a national tournament where my older brother played in a 'B' group and Sidney Crosby and Jack Johnson played in an 'A' group for Shattuck," said Etem. "They had such a great team when I saw them, and after that, it was always my goal to play there."

Aspiring to attend Shattuck St. Mary's even as a 10-year-old, Long Beach, California resident, Etem used his pre-teen accomplishments playing AAA youth hockey with the LA Hockey Club to get a memorable invitation to enroll in Shattuck starting in the fall of 2006.

The coach who invited Etem to attend Shattuck? Try former 14-year NHL veteran and then-Shattuck St. Mary's coach J.P. Parise, whose son, Zach Parise, had used Shattuck to launch his own professional career earlier in the decade.

"It was a dream come true to get that letter," said Etem. "It's something I'll never forget.

"It was such a great experience playing at Shattuck," added Etem. "But it's also a really tough place, academically."

"It's a college prep school, so we didn't get a lighter load because we were hockey players," said Smaby. "We practiced every day for an hour and 15 minutes, too. We also probably played between 60 and 70 games per year there. After going to Shattuck, going to college felt like a breeze."

For Smaby, playing for Shattuck led him to a collegiate career at the University of North Dakota, and the chance to turn pro in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and eventually join the Admirals for the first time in the fall of 2007.

"I think kids who don't go to a school like Shattuck have trouble adjusting to college sometimes," said Smaby. "It can be tough to balance school and hockey in college. But going to Shattuck, you immediately learn how to do all the things you have to do in college. It helped my adjustment to college a lot, which led to my chance to turn pro."

Although Etem never graduated from Shattuck—he left after his sophomore year to play junior hockey—his experiences at the school, like Smaby, led to being drafted by an NHL team and the chance to turn pro.

"I think he (Etem) is just starting to learn the pro game," said Admirals assistant coach Mike Haviland. "He can shoot the puck, has great speed and when he gets in on the forecheck, he can make things happen. He needs to be a guy who finishes all of his checks because his scoring will come off of that. He started slow this season, but I think he's starting to come around."

In terms of the Admirals as a group, "coming around" will be the team's prime mission this weekend when they visit the Hershey Bears and Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Although the Admirals having lost six straight games isn't something that Norfolk fans have had to sit through very often over the past few seasons, Ducks affiliates have a history of rebounding from tough stretches in recent years.

Last year, when the Syracuse Crunch were the Ducks' top affiliate, many of this year's Admirals dug themselves from 14th place of the Eastern Conference standings by going 15-3-1-1 over the last 20 games of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs.

Plus, last year's Ducks affiliate in Syracuse put together that rally without Devante Smith-Pelly, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, while Emerson Etem only suited up in two games during that entire stretch. Meanwhile, this year's Admirals will have the luxury of having those four players improving all season, with each being considered part of Anaheim's highest-touted group of prospects despite having just one full North American professional season of experience between them entering this year.

So as difficult as the team's recent losing streak has been for the team and its fans, the bright side is that last year's Ducks affiliate qualified for the postseason after being far out of the playoffs with only six weeks left in the season. On the other hand, this year's team, which is much more talented, has over four months to rebound from what has been a difficult November. Wins this weekend against Hershey and Bridgeport would give the team the opportunity to be within striking distance of a playoff spot again as early as next week.

Plus, all it takes sometimes is one good game for a team to right its ship.

And as Norfolk fans should know, one good game can easily lead to a streak.

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