Four years ago, Ray Emery was as on top of the world as he’s ever been. He was the man, the hip cat around a very unhip town: Ottawa, Ontario. And he was the local NHL team’s starting goaltender. Led them all the way to the finals, against Anaheim, where I first encountered him.
I recall the media day on the Sunday before the series started with two images: those of Emery and Andrej Maszaros, both bedecked for the occasion in casual summer wear, as if they were going to own California.
They failed. The team lost the first two games in Anaheim, the second 1-0, so hardly one the goalie can be blamed for. They then took game 3, 5-3, up in Ottawa, and lost the next one there and the final game in Cali, 6-2. Nobody would have predicted a five-game series. There was just too much confidence on the Sens’ side.
And maybe the problem was just that.
Four years later, Ray Emery is a different man. He’s been through the muck of a career-threatening injury, working his way back in almost miracle fashion. And because of that, he’s a chastened man, too. Or at least, that’s how it sounds talking to him. Gone is the swagger. What remains is a quiet confidence, almost a soft-spokenness.
Still marking his body are the tattoos he put there over the younger part of his life. But the attitude that had him boxing as a hobby and, reportedly, not shying away from large living, has disappeared. In its place is a daily 45-minute routine that will, he believes, allow him to continue to play the game he has so much promise at.
His numbers in the playoffs of 2007, by the way, were outstanding. He played in all of the Senators’ fifteen games and registered a 1.95 GAA and .919 save percentage. Along the way, he shut out the opponents he faced three times.
For his career, he sports a 2.69 GAA and .907 save percentage. His record is 87-51-15 and he has blanked his opposition 11 times.
Following the stint in Ottawa, Emery went to Russia to play, and bounced from there to the Flyers. The time overseas was rumored to be a sort of penance for the way of living that he’d been following, which didn’t agree with the conservative ways of the hockey world.
It was with the Flyers last spring that Emery suffered a hip injury and was then discovered to be plagued by a degenerative condition in the joint which starved the bone of blood. This is the injury Bo Jackson saw end his career, and a couple of weeks ago, a story about Emery in the Vancouver Sun quoted Jackson as saying something to the effect of “if the kid ever gets back from that, he’s amazing.”
The fact is, medical science has progressed since the two decade-old situation with Jackson, and there is a surgery that can be done, and was to Emery, where bone is fused into the dead part in the joint so that a new blood supply is established.
Hearing that likely makes you feel like grabbing your own hip and hoping you never wreck it getting out of bed. Not many of us, it’s likely, would ever get back to full activity if we suffered what Emery has.
And playing pro sports? Crazy.
“Well, it’s healed, but obviously you want to protect it and take the stress off the hip, because it was caused by something, and that was stress on the hip,” Emery said about his condition. “The bone’s regenerated, the hip’s fine, but obviously at the same time, you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results, so you’ve got to protect that hip.”
None of this would really matter were the Ducks not fighting like heck to survive and wondering where it all went wrong. Check that—it’s clear what has happened. Their star goaltender, Jonas Hiller, has vertigo, and after a brief stint of genius, the guy who was backing him up, Curtis McElhinney, became a nightmare.
Dan Ellis came over to take up the slack, and he played OK for a while, though in most of the contests he was in, he let in at least one semi-suspect goal. It’s hard to say that, because Ellis is such a smart and personable person, always willing to talk, and honest, not a cliché-machine, that it seems unfair to criticize him.
But Sunday night, with the Coyotes in town, his coach finally decided to change things up in period three after Ellis had let in four goals, including two near the end of the second period. The last of those, in fact, came with less than a minute on the clock.
Emery played the third period in that game until he was pulled for the extra man. He faced nine shots and stopped them all. Wednesday with the Blues in town, he started.
So he’s the savior, right? Don’t get in such a big hurry. He’s sure of himself, and he wouldn’t be where he is if the team wasn’t also confident, but he’s far from altogether past his injury and recovery.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel as good as I’ve felt in the past four or five years.”
Emery is 28, having been drafted by the Sens in 2001 with the 99th overall pick (fourth round).
Partly because I was impressed with the stories I’d read about the insane work Emery had put in to get back on the ice, I asked him about his routine off the ice.
Specifically, I said, “Can you just bust out a splits anytime you feel like it?” As I do, I looked at the skinny legs that hold the guy up.
“No, no, not me” he says with a laugh, gesturing over to Ellis in the stall next to his. “That’s him over there. But I do keep picking up mobility, and I make sure that I don’t tighten up, certain areas that tighten up, hip flexors tighten up, I’ve got to maintain [that].”
Emery’s routine, alluded to before, was months of physical therapy at his cottage, hours a day. He’s not doing that anymore.
“That was more of a, um, something that got me to the point where I was able to heal it back, so that I could start to play,” he comments.
Now, he says, he’s working more on maintaining, and he’s got the routine down to about 45 minutes a day.
“It’s stretching, treatments, activation things that I do every day, and that’s sufficient to protect the hip and make sure that everything else is working as well.”
The question you have to ask yourself when you watch Emery is, would I see him any differently had I no knowledge of his injury? He seems, at times, hobbled as he moves. But it might be that he’s just a goaltender who uses a lot of short, choppy steps as he moves side to side. His style reflects that. It’s not terribly clean, if you will, but that’s not a criticism.
These days, we’re so used to seeing robo-perfect netminders, every move scripted, all the motions controlled, that to see a guy like Emery is a bit of a shock. For instance, at the end of the first period against the Blues in Anaheim Wednesday night, the puck worked into his end. He shuffled from left to right across the crease.
The puck worked to his right, and as the shot came, he was right out on the edge of the crease. The puck went long side, and he got his left arm up tight to his body to squeeze it off. It hit him on the outside of the arm and went wide and into the corner. Not by much, but wide is wide.
He tracked the puck over to his left with those little steps, giving the guy standing on the edge of the crease a shiv with the goal stick as he did so. The referee seemed to drift over to say something, but Emery wasn’t listening, because he was stopping another shot, one which came through a crowd low. He got his right leg down for it. It wasn’t a splits, but rather the left leg was bent a bit. So what? He had a margin of error of a good eight inches when he blocked the puck with the middle of his pad.
And that’s they way he does things. Inefficiently, if you will. The Ducks don’t care. Just as long as he wins.
On the way back to the NHL, he played a number of games with the team’s AHL farm club in Syracuse. A really weak team this year which is last in the East division and within two points of being at the bottom of the league, the Crunch would test the mettle of anyone who played for them in the nets. Emery was there twice, posting a 4-1 record and letting in ten goals. His save percentage was .943 and his GAA 1.98. Remember, that’s on a team which has a record at this point in the season of 24-35-3.
As for his seeming inefficiency in the crease, his skating belies this fact. He’s fast, as when he hustled to the bench for the extra man on a delayed penalty call against the Blues. I’m not sure I’ve seen a goalie this quick, though again, it was those short, choppy strides which took him past the center line from his crease in short order.
In terms of how he plays the puck, it’s from his knees with the legs not fanned out far like Hiller does, but rather in a kind of tight V behind him. He’ll sometimes stay down for seconds at a time, moving laterally like that. He frequently uses his blocker to make a save. And he’s a bit like a nervous baseball player stepping up to the plate in that he’s always touching his posts and making a check that his left (catching) glove is tight. Sometimes, he does this by pushing it against his knee pad.
Another way to say all of this is that like the goalies of the past, Emery has a personality in there, one that is bigger than what can be contained in the modern giganto-pads that netminders all wear.
On the first goal he let in Wednesday night, the first one he let in in over a year, he was on his knees in that posture described above. The puck was in the high slot, and Emery stayed down, a screen in front of him. Nathan Oystrick took a near-perfect shot that glanced off the inside of the post about 18 inches high and went in. Emery didn’t have a chance. No one would have.
Meanwhile, the Blues had taken over in terms of shots on goal, leading 18-11. The Ducks got the goal back shortly thereafter on their way to an eventual 2-1 victory. The Blues did surprise Emery with a quick shot right off a faceoff in the Ducks’ end with a minute left. It came right across right to left, and he got a stick on it, then dove. David Backes came in for the jam, but the puck stayed out. A scrum ensued.
Glorious? Not really, though the announced 12,600 cheered him more heartily as the night went on (It was more like 8500—for every seat filled, there was at least one empty). Emery was named the second star of the game.
So it is that Anaheim is the place where Emery’s NHL dream has come true once more. Does he feel a bit of regret that this is also the place where his Stanley Cup dream died four years ago?
“That’s a long time ago,” he said. “You know what, I’ve been here, the year after with Ottawa, and I’m not sure if I was here last year with Philly. But you know what? Every year’s a new year, and you can’t dwell on the past too much. Just keep moving.”
As I thank him and say my goodbyes, a little bit of that old, hipster Emery comes out. “Thanks, bro,” he says.
I smile. You can’t help but wish the guy well.