The Philadelphia Flyers have had, shall we say, a fascinating history of goaltenders. Parent, Peeters, Lindbergh, Hextall, Snow, Vanbiesbrouck, Cechmanek, Boucher, and Bryzgalov are but a handful of interesting characters who achieved various levels of success or ignominy while tending the pipes for the Orange and Black.
One of the more fascinating characters in that history is the story of Ray Emery, their 2010 free agent acquisition whose tenure in Philadelphia was short lived because of his diagnosis of avascular necrosis in his hip, a disease in which there is cellular death of bone components.
Before Emery, no athlete had ever recovered from AVN without the assistance of an artificial joint. The diagnosis convinced him that he wasn’t, in his own words, “Superman.”
But you don’t become the first player to recover from it without having a pugnacious personality.
Ray Emery has been a “fighter,” in every symbolic and literal sense and that designation has had both positive and negative connotations throughout his career.
It’s no mystery that he is a lover of the “sweet science”, as befitting a player who has put a variety of famous boxers on his mask.
In terms of how he plays, combative is the best descriptor.
He’ll fight for every inch of his crease if you’re an opposing forward encroaching upon it.
He’ll fight to go from post to post to prevent a wraparound goal.
And during those mercurial days of youth, with great pleasure, he would fight you or your opposing goalie at center ice if he felt like it.
In terms of goaltenders opposing players were hesitant to cross, he was close to the top of the list.
Emery had established an interesting reputation as a physically gifted goaltender who had led the Ottawa Senators to a Stanley Cup Finals berth three years prior. Add to the mix, he lived a fairly flashy life style that the Ottawa press seemed to greatly enjoy for good copy.
However, he wore out his welcome in the years following in a variety of controversies involving lateness to practice and tempestuous behavior. Emery was put through waivers and was without an NHL contract for the following season.
He signed a 1-year, $2 million contract with Atalant Moscow that was noteworthy for the physical altercation he had with a trainer who wanted to put a sponsor’s hat on him.
Returning to the States, Emery signed with the Flyers on a one-year, $1.5 million contract. At the time, it was seen as a calculated risk by general manager Paul Holmgren with the understanding that a selfish persona would not be tolerated.
After a solid preseason, Emery had a great debut, shutting out the Carolina Hurricanes, but as the season wore on, it became apparent that something was physically ailing him as his reactions in the crease notably slowed and his goals against average rose about 2.60 while his save percentage dropped to nearly .900.
In early December, Emery was placed on injured reserve to have surgery on a torn muscle in his abdomen. He was slated to miss six weeks but his prognosis surprisingly changed when hw was diagnosed.
While it was discovered early, the initial prognosis was not good. The most noted athlete to have suffered from this was two sport superstar Bo Jackson, who had to end his playing career because of it. His surgery was a difficult procedure that involved removing 13 centimeters from his right fibula and then grafting it to the femur to re-introduce a proper blood supply to the area.
With the belief that doctors had caught the disease early enough, no one was extremely confident that Emery could be a functional NHL goaltender. No athlete had ever recovered from avascular necrosis without the aid of an artificial joint. A grueling workout and rehabilitation process began that included standard exercise, acupuncture procedures, and even ballet.
"It was painful and I was in a hospital bed for a month, on crutches for five months until I started walking by myself and doing physiotherapy," Emery told the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh. "It was a full year before I got healthy enough to where I wanted to play again."
The diagnosis and arduous seemingly changed his demeanor and outlook on his career. Knowing full well that he couldn’t play forever, he cast aside what he was and worked on getting to the point of being a viable goaltender in the NHL again.
He just needed an opportunity. And from the West Coast, one came.
A serious problem in goaltending in Anaheim, most notably with vertigo symptoms for starter Jonas Hiller, provided Emery with a chance to return to the NHL. Signing a one year, two way contract, he proceeded to provide the Ducks with stability in net, going 7-2 with a 2.28 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in ten game played.
His excellent play helped Anaheim secure a spot in the 2011 NHL playoffs. His comeback earned him a nomination for the Masterton Trophy.
However, he did not find takers for his services initially for an NHL contract and signed a try out deal with the Blackhawks. He impressed management in training camp and preseason enough for them to lock him in to a one-year, $600,000 contract.
He has shared goaltending responsibilities with Corey Crawford this season with Crawford having more wins than Emery, but the later ahead in the GAA and save percentage category. He has provided a steady influence that allows the Blackhawks to maintain their perch near the top of the NHL’s overall standings
This will be Chicago’s first return to Philadelphia since they won the Stanley Cup in 2010. The chorus of boos for the one of the NHL’s best teams will be deafening at times, as it should be.
But the trials and efforts put in by Emery to become a viable NHL netminder again should garner a few cheers from the Wells Fargo faithful because, as befitting of his personality, he’s fought like hell to earn them.
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