The Ray Emery that Chicago Blackhawks fans might see during training camp should be a changed man compared to the one many hockey fans judged as an eccentric prima donna during his days with the Ottawa Senators.
He’s taken quite a humbling path to get there. After the Senators decided to part ways with their roach-eating, promising young Stanley Cup finals starter, Emery found himself in KHL purgatory for a season. That run in the KHL helped him rebuild his image enough to earn a job with the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2009-10 season.
That’s when things went from rocky to career-threatening. Emery was dealing with avascular necrosis, a hip problem so severe that many believed it would be the end of his playing days. With every start his hip continued to deteriorate, with one doctor saying that he would have been done for good if he played for a few more months.
Ultimately, Emery was given a choice to go through a painful surgery which features a rehab process so painful (and rare) that a full return to action was concerned almost unprecedented among professional athletes. Craig Custance tells the story about Emery’s collapsing hip.
“Once it collapses, you’re done,” Ruch said. “It was a critical time for him. He could have played on that season with the Flyers and it would have collapsed and that would have been it.”
The solution wasn’t any more pleasant. The corrective surgery replaces the dead bone with living bone — in this case, bone from the middle section of Emery’s fibula. Surgery meant the removal of dead bone from Emery’s hip and the extraction of healthy bone from his leg. It also involves cutting through muscle just to get to the femur.
In all, the surgery took six hours. That was the easy part.
The rehab process was even worse. Custance writes that Emery dealt with relentless pain following the surgery, with the results so agonizing he rarely got more than an hour of sleep in any attempt at rest. Emery spoke to a mother of a youth hockey goalie who underwent the same surgery and eventually committed suicide with pain killers.
Through a grueling rehab process, Emery defied odds by getting himself in shape to play in net again. He used everything from ballet to yoga and on to somehow get his body to where it needed to be for another chance. The results stunned doctors and trainers, including Duke University’s Dr. David Ruch.
“He’s an amazing character and I think he’s a controversial character,” Ruch said. “The guy is an extraordinarily motivated individual. Everybody who has encountered him from our perspective is amazed at the dedication it took. He’s one in a million.”
Emery still needs to beat some odds during his training camp audition with the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford is entrenched as the No. 1 starter while Alexander Salak has the leg up as the backup thanks to his one-way contract. Emery wasn’t just a charity case last season, though; he went 7-2-0 with a stunning .926 save percentage and 2.28 GAA to help the Anaheim Ducks squeak into the playoffs.
In other words, Emery might not be done beating the odds just yet.