By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – At 6-foot-8 and 246 pounds, Riley Emmerson will likely be the tallest and heaviest player in the ECHL this season. His size alone may make even the league’s toughest players cringe.
The Florida Everblades forward’s fighting skills elevate that intimidating presence. In a preseason game last week, Emmerson hit Phoenix’s James McEwan with 15 punches.
When he sees his son own the ice like that, Gary Emmerson can’t help but think how far Emmerson has come. Emmerson nearly died at birth because he was born three months premature.
“They called me from the hospital and said, ‘Your child is dead and we’re hoping your wife makes it through,’ ” Gary Emmerson said.
“Riley spent the first four months of his life in an incubator. The doctor said he would never catch up. Look at him now. It’s amazing.”
The Vancouver native, who is under contract with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, weighed 2 pounds when he was born.
“He fit in the palm of my hand,” Gary Emmerson said.
According to healthatoz.com, babies born three months premature have a 40 to 70 percent survival rate. Twenty-five to 50 percent of them develop long-term disability because their organs aren’t fully developed.
Gary Emmerson said his son was “extremely sick” for the first year and half of his life. His stomach wasn’t fully developed. He had trouble keeping food down.
At one point, doctors were considering a major operation. They wanted to fix his organs.
“They were basically going to cut him in half,” Gary Emmerson said.But then Emmerson started improving. He began to keep food down. His organs started to develop.
“He just fixed himself,” Gary Emmerson said. “He slowly got better every day. The doctor told me, ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t do this operation. I would let this kid do what he’s doing.’ ”
When he was 2 1/2 years old, Emmerson left the hospital for good. Emmerson, 22, doesn’t remember his health battles, but he never forgot what his former doctor said during his childhood.
“He said I was going to be really short,” Emmerson said. “But I was the tallest guy in my class every year.”
Emmerson said he had his biggest growth spurt when he was 16 — he grew four inches that year, making him 6-4.
“That makes me think if I was born on time, would I be 9 feet tall? Would I be a freak?” Emmerson said.
After he signed his first professional contract with the Wild in 2005, Emmerson ran into his former doctor at a Vancouver community event. Gary Emmerson made sure to snap a photo of his son with the man who said Emmerson “would never catch up.” The picture shows Emmerson towering over the doctor.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing he’s not catching up,” Gary Emmerson joked.Gary Emmerson, who is 6-7, said the doctor couldn’t believe Emmerson was so tall. He remembered Emmerson weighing 2 pounds.
“He called Riley our ‘Miracle Kid,’ ” Gary Emmerson said.
The Miracle Kid has fashioned a solid hockey career. Blades coach Malcolm Cameron said Emmerson was a project when he started coaching him two years ago on the ECHL Texas Wildcatters.
“He’s grown into a very functional hockey player who can change the momentum of the game with a big hit or by taking it to the net and drawing a penalty,” Cameron said.
Fighting, however, is Emmerson’s game. He racked up 142 penalty minutes in 51 games with Texas last season.
Emmerson said he learned to fight by scrapping with his two older brothers, 6-4 Jordan and 6-5 Taylor. The siblings were big fighters in the British Columbia Hockey League.
Emmerson remembers his first fight. He was 14 and about to go to his first big junior camp. His father told him to fight Taylor, who is 3 years older than Emmerson.
“You’ve got to learn to take a punch,” Emmerson remembered his father saying.
Taylor clocked Emmerson in the face, but Emmerson didn’t back down. He hit Taylor with a punch.
Emmerson, who fought four Blades players last season, hasn’t stopped punching.
Gary Emmerson and his wife, Cheri, plan to make a trip to Estero to watch their son — the premature baby who turned into a hockey enforcer.
“We have a commercial up here in Vancouver. It’s by the Vancouver Children’s Hospital,” Gary Emmerson said. “Kids come on and say, ‘I’m a survivor.’ Riley should be in there.”