Ty Emberson is outnumbered.
The freshman defenseman for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team followed his father’s path from Eau Claire to Madison.
The rest of his family has ties to Minnesota, including a grandfather who’s in the Golden Gophers’ athletics hall of fame.
With Emberson playing in a Border Battle series for the first time this weekend, the divide is real.
“I grew up split right in the middle,” Emberson said. “But this weekend’s going to be great. I’m going to have family come down, have a couple friends come down, so it’s going to be fun.”
Regardless of the records, there’s always a little more fun between the teams and their fan bases when the Badgers and Gophers meet up on the ice. Minnesota has had more enjoyment in the results category lately, going 12-6-2 in the series during the first five years of the Big Ten Conference era.
But for Emberson, when No. 20 UW and 16th-ranked Minnesota meet up at the Kohl Center tonight and Saturday, there’s blood on both sides of the rivalry.
His grandfather, Denny Zacho, played hockey and baseball at Minnesota from 1964 to 1967. In 2007, he was inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame, and he’s the reason Emberson got into hockey.
Emberson’s mom, Missy, followed her dad to Minnesota. Both of Emberson’s siblings attend the Twin Cities campus.
On the UW side, there’s just Emberson and his dad, Mike.
“A lot at stake,” Ty Emberson said. “A lot of bragging rights this weekend.”
If this weekend goes as the first four of Emberson’s collegiate career have, it’ll be hard to pick him out on the ice but his coaches will be thankful for that kind of effort.
Emberson has been exactly as advertised in his first month with the Badgers: a straightforward defender who’s tough on opposing players without attracting much attention.
“When fans watch him, they have to almost search for him because he does pretty much all things right,” Badgers associate head coach Mark Osiecki said.
In grading Emberson’s decision-making while he’s in possession of the puck, Osiecki said he scored between 96 and 98 out of 100. “Which is NHL-level,” Osiecki said.
The Arizona Coyotes picked Emberson in the third round of this year’s NHL draft based on the defenseman’s consistent play and pedigree.
Emberson left Eau Claire Memorial to spend his last two seasons of high school with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, where he furthered a competitive, physical style of play.
“What makes Ty special is his dependability and the way he goes about his business every day,” said Seth Appert, who coached Emberson with the NTDP. “Ty’s going to play in the NHL for a long, long time. He’s just rock solid.
“He’s a guy that, as a coach, when he goes over the boards, you have complete trust in what you’re going to get for the next 35, 40 seconds.”
Trust is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for a defenseman, and Osiecki wants to see Emberson take another step in understanding that he’s making the right plays.
“Once he really realizes what he has in that body, his level’s going to go up,” Osiecki said. “And that’s just being a young kid. He’s a really good skater. People don’t normally see it because he’s always in the right spot. But once he understands that, that he can utilize his legs and kill plays quick, be quick to close on guys, now he’s going to go to another level.”
Emberson has spent the past five games paired with fellow freshman K’Andre Miller, who’s also his roommate and former NTDP teammate.
They seem to have as much synergy on the ice as they do off of it, with Miller’s willingness to get involved on the offensive side of things and Emberson’s shut-down nature in the back end providing a good balance.
“He’s always been that guy that I can always go to if I have any trouble with anything, really, in life,” Miller said. “He’s a great friend and probably one of my best friends.”
Said Emberson: “Being able to come here and play with him, I think it’s just a lot of familiarity, a lot of time spent together.”
Miller is a first-round NHL pick, a little more adventurous with the puck and a member of the power play, so he gets more notice. Emberson seems fine with that. Being under the radar is more his style.
“If you don’t notice me,” Emberson said, “that’s a good thing.”
If you don’t notice him and he gets family bragging rights in the Border Battle this weekend, all the better for Emberson.
Johnson’s jersey retired
UW has never before retired a men’s hockey player’s jersey. The choice for the first one was something of a no-brainer.
Mark Johnson, the program’s all-time leading goal-scorer despite playing only three seasons for the Badgers, will be honored with his jersey No. 10 in the Kohl Center rafters on Feb. 9.
The Madison native became a U.S. hockey hero when he helped the Americans win the Olympic gold medal in 1980. That came after three seasons with the Badgers in which he won the NCAA championship as a freshman in 1977 and scored 125 goals in 125 games.
“It makes the honor probably a little bit more special, knowing that you’re the first one,” Johnson said.