Goaltender Ray Emery must prove three things to any NHL team interested in his services: he's healthy, he can stop the puck and he can be counted on. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
All of the attention is on Ray Emery's hip. Equally as fascinating is what's missing from his leg.
Diagnosed with a degenerative disease called avascular necrosis, the former Senator/Flyer was given three surgical options to try and fix the problem. He chose door No. 3, which meant the bottom of his fibula was moved into his hip to improve essential blood flow.
"A rod was put in to replace it, right?" he's asked.
"No," Emery replies.
"So, what's there?"
"There's nothing in your leg where that bone used to be?"
"Nope, but it's not a load-bearing bone. So it's not a big deal."
Sounds pretty creepy, but it's very low on Emery's list of concerns. He's much more preoccupied with finding his way back to the NHL. He knows he must prove three things: he's healthy, he can stop the puck and he can be counted on. One of them is a slightly bigger challenge than the other two.
Is he healthy?
By now, most fans are aware that Emery's injury is the one that ended Bo Jackson's football career. Recovery is a lengthy and tedious process. He's been skating/working out with the OHL's Brampton Battalion, whose head coach, GM Stan Butler, has an excellent relationship with many NHLers. (Funny story: during the world junior tournament, one current Brampton player asked Emery if he'd played in the event. The goalie laughed and said, "No, Stan cut me." Guess Butler is making amends.)
Emery also works with former Toronto Maple Leaf conditioning coach Matt Nichol, whose current client list includes Mike Cammalleri and Olympic bobsled gold medallist Heather Moyse. They meet two or three times per week, doing everything from yoga, pilates and even ballet to increase his strength and flexibility.
Emery looks terrific. In the process of rehabbing his hip, he's also addressed some other, older issues.
"I broke my [right] ankle when I was younger and didn't allow it to heal properly," he said. "As a result, that foot is one size smaller than the other." It led to recurring injuries up and down his leg. The time off allowed him to deal with all of that. Emery is physically ready to begin his comeback.
Can he stop the puck?
Emery had three shutouts in just 29 games last season. His other numbers weren't awe-inspiring, but of the goalies who played in Philadelphia (Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton), they were the best.
After Ottawa defeated Buffalo in the 2007 Eastern Conference final, one Sabre said, "The amazing thing about Emery is that after he made the first save, he didn't seem to know where the puck was. We couldn't take advantage of that."
In an age where goalies are being taught to economize their movements, he looked hyperactive. Marc-Andre Fleury was very similar when he first arrived in the NHL. He eventually calmed down, and Emery's following that path.
"When you're young, you rely on your athleticism. You're impatient," he said. "But in Philly, I was back in the net, trying to play the same game over and over." Asked about the "blocking" technique being taught by some teams, he says, "I'm trying to do a little more of that."
He's also reunited with Eli Wilson, who coached him in Ottawa. Wilson's client list includes Carey Price and Tim Thomas, both of whom are having spectacular seasons.
Can he be counted on?
When it comes to Ray Emery, it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Some of the rumours are so incredible, they seem impossible. (For whatever reason, Ottawa is a hotbed for crazy stories about hockey players. If even 25 per cent of them were true, there would be a Dead Sea in Eastern Ontario.) For example, I once heard Emery spent $50,000 on a Halloween party.
"It was for the team," he said.
So that one is true?
"Yes," smiling at the memory. "It was a great party."
The more I asked Emery about this kind of stuff, the more he shuffled in his seat. He'd answer, and was polite, but feels he doesn't get enough credit for how well he fit in last year in Philadelphia. That's probably true, but the injury-shortened season didn't give him enough momentum to change minds.
He does admit that he was his own worst enemy.
"What worked for me early in my career...how I conducted myself, some of the people I associated with, didn't work for me later on. I didn't deal with that very well at all. I was a kid, took things for granted...I didn't really understand that there was more to being a player. I didn't respect that.
"It caught up to me real quick."
Yes, it did. After going to the Stanley Cup final, he signed a three-year, $9.5 million US contract - and barely got through one season. The Senators bought him out after a series of disciplinary problems. At this point in the conversation, it's mentioned that Ottawa could use goaltending help now.
Emery laughs. "I don't think that's going to happen."
He was exiled to Russia before Philadelphia took a chance on him. He is particularly thankful to John Paddock, the Flyers' assistant general manager. Paddock's head coaching tenure in Ottawa was submarined by Emery's issues.
"For [someone like that] to stick by you," he pauses, "puts things in perspective."
Where's he going?
If he could pick a team, it's an easy call: The Flyers. "I loved it there. Great group of guys, always hung out together. No small groups of four or five, split up from everyone else."
But Philly, with playoff hero Leighton in the AHL and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky holding strong in the big leagues, appears unlikely. Emery's only 28 and won't command big dollars, so someone's going to give him a shot - although he'll be riding minor league buses at the start.
He understands that. Better to ride the buses than stand on the side of the road, watching them go by.
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