by Craig Custance, Sporting News
[singlepic id=30 w=320 h=240 float=none]Here's what trainer Matt Nichol saw in front of him in September 2010: A goalie who couldn't walk properly. A goalie who couldn't stand on one leg without falling over. A goalie who was in constant pain. A goalie with no range of motion, who barely could bend down and touch a knee.
That goalie, Ray Emery, had simple message for Nichol. He wanted back in the NHL, even if there wasn’t a hockey player in history who had returned from his particular hip surgery. As far as his doctor knew, there wasn’t a professional athlete who had resumed a long-term playing career after the procedure.
Oh yeah, and if Nichol could make it happen by the trade deadline in February 2011, that’d be great, too.
Before taking on the assignment, Nichol laid out the ground rules.
“This is not like going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, Friday for an hour and banging out some bench presses. That’s not what we’re going to do,” he said.
“It’s my way or the highway and at the end of the day, realistically, it’s probably not going to work out for you.”
And with that, Emery started the path to recovery.
By now, you know the ending. Emery returned to save the Ducks' season in 2010-11, going 7-2-0 with a .926 save percentage down the stretch while Jonas Hiller dealt with complications from vertigo and helping Anaheim solidify, then improve, its position in the Western Conference.
But the Ducks already had two goalies signed for 2011-12, so Emery hit free agency on July 1. He proved he had the character to return from an excruciating injury. He proved he could still excel as an NHL goalie and yet, he waited.
July 1 came and went without an offer that interested him. So did July 2 and 3 and 4. Most of that month followed suit.
Finally, on July 27, Emery accepted a tryout offer from the Blackhawks, and he’ll head to training camp without any guarantees. Corey Crawford is the unquestioned starter; Alexander Salak is under contract to be the backup.
Then there’s Emery -- 28 years old, with starting stints in Ottawa, Russia, Philadelphia and Anaheim on his resume before the hip injury that derailed his career.
“I’m happy with the way it worked with Chicago,” he told Sporting News. “I’m happy to get a chance to go to a camp and make people believe.”
Those who understand the path he took just to get here already do.
On April 1, 2010, Emery had surgery that could have ended his career. Really, it should have.
He was suffering from a condition in his hip called avascular necrosis (AVN). The bone at the head of his femur, which fits into to the hip, was dead because of a lack of bloodflow and the more he used it, the more it flattened.
“People would say it’s a square peg in a round hole,” said Duke University’s Dr. David Ruch, who performed the surgery.
It was painful. And it wasn’t getting better.
Emery played 29 games with the Flyers during the 2009-10 season, going 16-11-1 with a 2.64 goals-against average. His hip was slowly deteriorating the entire time.
“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.
“You can imagine, for a hockey goalie, that wouldn’t be good,” Ruch said.
In all, the surgery took six hours. That was the easy part.
Ruch’s goal was to get Emery to a place where he could walk again without pain. Playing in the NHL, or anywhere else, wasn’t seriously considered
“We have to have this conversation with what people’s expectations are,” Ruch said.
In other words, keep it realistic.
And those days following the surgery were real. Too real.
Emery looked at his leg following the surgery. It was twice its normal size, like something from another person’s body.
He had an epidural for three days to fend off the pain but before he could transition to the oral painkillers, doctors had to allow the epidural to leave his body. That’s when the excruciating pain first revealed itself.
“Pain’s pain,” he said, like a true hockey player. This pain, however, was relentless. Emery returned home and even the painkillers didn’t remove the edge.
Turns out, the body doesn’t appreciate bone being carved out and reinserted somewhere else.
The worse part was the lack of sleep. Constant pain meant rest was limited to sessions lasting half an hour -- one hour, tops.
“The lack of sleep caught up with me… Ten days in, I started to break down. I was really having a tough time,” Emery said. “You’re wondering if it’s going to go away.”
He said he later spoke with the mother of a youth hockey goalie who underwent the same surgery. She shared the struggles her son went through in recovery. She shared the tragic ending, when her son took his life with painkillers.
Nichol wasn’t convinced Emery could return from such dramatic surgery, but that didn’t stop him from emptying his trainer playbook to find a way to make it happen.
Rehab was a six-day-a-week job that started around 8 a.m. There was time in the gym. There was time in the pool. There was acupuncture. There was yoga and Pilates and anything else that seemed to produce even the slightest bit of progress in Emery’s recovery.
One of the most effective forms of rehab? Ballet.
“Actually, that was amazing,” Emery said. “I had the bone out of my lower leg and it was the ankle flexion that was giving me problems. Doing a workout entirely on my tippy-toes -- the stretching, it was tough. But it was good for my lower legs.”
If something worked, Emery and Nichol went back to it. If it didn’t, they scrapped it.
Eventually he tried on goalie equipment. Eventually he returned to the ice.
Even then, there were no guarantees.
Then came a day in mid-winter when Nichol said he first started to realize Emery would return to the NHL.
They were at a Toronto area rink where Emery was taking shots from different players. And these were NHL-caliber players Nichol brought in to work, sometimes Eric Lindros even dropped in to test Emery.
“It wasn’t me out there shooting on him,” Nichol said.
But there was one day that was particularly ugly. Emery couldn’t stop a thing, and doubt started to sink in. Probably for Emery -- and definitely for Nichol. It wasn’t the goals that bothered Nichol, it was Emery’s reaction. His body language. Nichol noticed that his goalie was feeling sorry for himself. Relentless drive was transforming into self-pity.
“He looked like (expletive),” Nichol said.
Following another goal on Emery, one of the scorers celebrated. He showed Emery up.
After that, it was over.
“I saw that fire in his eyes. No one scored after that,” Nichol said. “It was like Vladislav Tretiak circa 1970. He just went to another place.”
Nichol stopped doubting. Emery’s doubts remained.
Dr. Ruch was concerned that Emery would rush back from the surgery and that the hip would collapse before it healed. It was a legitimate fear; the doctors wouldn't give Emery a clean bill of health until June.
“He kind of fell of the radar screen a little bit,” Ruch said. “I was really worried.”
Then Emery came in for a visit and let the doctor know he could do the splits again. A must for any goalie.
“I was absolutely astounded,” Ruch said.
The progress continued, and Emery got to the point where he was ready to play in the American Hockey League. The Ducks gave him that opportunity in Syracuse, signing him to a risk-free two-way deal.
“I wasn’t positive that it was going to work or be successful,” Emery said.
How could he be? Nobody had done anything like it before.
He played three games for Syracuse, winning two of them. He had a .925 save percentage. He had a job opportunity coming in the NHL.
On Feb. 27, Anaheim called him up. With his March 11 debut, Emery began a string of performances that helped the Ducks make the playoffs. But that success didn’t complete his comeback.
It’s just starting.
Ray Emery has had to deal with more than the usual 28-year-old hockey player. Some of his troubles were self-induced, like in his tenure with Ottawa, when conflicts off the ice played a big role in the Senators parting ways with a goalie who took them to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Ducks in five games.
In 2008-09, he began rebuilding his image with Atlant Moscow in Russia's KHL and continued that progress with the Flyers. In May, he beat the odds with his NHL return. He deserves a chance to change his reputation -- permanently.
“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.”
Based on what Ruch saw when he opened up Emery’s hip, Emery had about three or four months left before it collapsed. In roughly 180 days, his hockey career would have been over for good.
That realization changes a man.
There may have been times early in Emery’s career that it looked like he was trying to blow it all on his own. Suddenly, he’s desperate to save it.
“It brings you back down to earth,” Emery said. “It seemed like in the past –- you had a window and most guys, you’re thinking ‘Until I’m 33 or 35 I’m going to be in pretty good shape and my body is at my disposal.’”
Emery’s window -- temporarily, at least -- slammed shut.
“It makes you seem a lot more human,” he said. “That’s a humbling experience.”
His real comeback starts now. It starts at training camp with the Blackhawks, where he has to earn a roster spot. Then earn playing time. Then prove his comeback wasn’t about 16 games with the Ducks.
He still wants to win something big.
Along the way, he’s picking up admirers. In a conversation with the mother whose son committed suicide, he offered anything she needed to help raise awareness. Doctors at Duke are pointing to Emery’s comeback as motivation for young children fighting through leukemia and the similar pain that comes with bone marrow transplants.
Ray Emery the role model. It’s something he’s still getting used to.
“I don’t take myself too seriously,” he said, “you know what I mean?”
But it may be time for that. For him. For those who question him. For anybody playing the Blackhawks this season.