A week after the surgery, he went home to the love of his mother and father. He lay for a month in excruciating pain on a bed set up in the living room, taking the painkillers every five hours instead of the prescribed eight. In the black pre-dawn his mother heard her son crying. She found him shaking. At the hospital, he was put on intravenous. His morphine dosage was increased. If this was desolation of all hope, if this was denial of deliverance from damnation, he’d have none of it.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Ray Emery says there is no precise moment to when he died. He thinks it was simply a gradual and growing awareness that his name as a synonym in hockey for foolish times, desultory living, and a supine disregard for authority had virtually tapped out any more opportunities from those who’d been willing to defy the odds on the redemption of his incorrigible soul.
“I’m not that person anymore I was in Ottawa,” he says over a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant not far from the arena where earlier in the morning he’d practised with the Syracuse Crunch, the AHL farm team of the Anaheim Ducks, the club that recently gave him what he knows could be his last chance to make it in the NHL, the one-year contract a risky statement of faith. “I feel blessed that Anaheim has given me another chance to prove myself.”
“He’s in great shape, not an ounce of fat on him,” says Mark Holick, coach of the Crunch, the day before Ray Emery got the word that faith’s time to be put to the test had come: The Ducks have beckoned him to play. “He’ll be ready. The way he plays, you wouldn’t know he had that surgery.”
The surgery. For a disease that has ended athlete careers, crippled some for life. Avascular necrosis. When the blood supply to the bones does not get through, leading, if not diagnosed early, to death of the bones, in Emery’s case, his right hip.
He was on a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers when it was diagnosed in March 2010; followed by the surgery in which a 13- cm section of his fibula was grafted to his hip bone, and the long, painful rehabilitation, ending his time as a Flyer, the only NHL team that had been willing to sign him after he returned from a season in Russia with the KHL, the result at the time of no NHL club — as fierce a competitor and gifted a goalie as he is — wanting his contagious, toxic, demons.
In his years with the Senators, “Ray Emery” became a brand label, and the label was that of continuous controversy. The image of boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson on his helmet, his anger that the club made him remove it. His fines for showing up late at team practices, one for a playoff game in New Jersey. His stick-smashing rage at a practice, upset that he wasn’t getting as much ice time as goalie Martin Gerber.
His missing a flight to a road game because he was involved in a minor car crash on the way to the airport. His road rage against an Ottawa driver who he said cut his white Hummer off, the driver telling police Emery threatened to kill him, which the goalie denied. His on-ice fights, for which he was also known in junior hockey. His three-game suspension for slamming his stick into the face of Maxim Lapierre of the Canadiens.
His multitude of tattoos, his facial expression that bordered on the sullen, his flashy, expensive clothes, his purchase of a pet python; all exacerbated the public perception of Ray Emery as unconventional, and not entirely in an acceptable way in a city painted bland.
Not helping either he or the club were the burgeoning, incessant rumours on the street that his lifestyle was indiscreet and reckless: A womanizing, boozing, party animal, and one with a drug problem. He was aware of all the whispers.
Despite his superlatives in goal that were pivotal in the Senators going to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, the club bought out his contract in June the next year. It’d finally had enough of him, good-bye, good riddance.
“Ray,” I ask him, “how are you not the person anymore you were in Ottawa? Why should people believe you’ve changed?”
“I have changed. I’ve changed by the experiences I’ve had. I made a lot of errors. Missing practices, not understanding the repercussions.” He smiles. “I haven’t missed a practice in three years.”
He stabs at his spaghetti. “I’m independent and opinionated by nature. Telling people what I think. Not necessarily going along with authority. But I had to learn that in hockey, when you’re part of a team, it’s different. You can’t be that way. You have to compromise.
“But I was immature, I did some stupid things. I was young, there was a lot of pressure. And with the media, the public — I had no idea things would become so big. But I created them. I have to change, and I have.
“I’m not a stupid person. If I don’t, I’ll end up out of a job. But I know that for the rest of my life, 90% of the articles written about me will refer to the negative things about me that happened.”
He pauses. “When I was younger, I had anger management. I saw sports psychologists. I wanted to stay in Ottawa, but getting out of Ottawa is what needed to happen. I wasn’t happy my last year there. I wasn’t having fun. All the negativity. My friends hated it. People coming up to them asking ‘What’s wrong with Emery?’”
“I didn’t play well the last year. I was beating myself up. I’d get discouraged, I’d lose confidence. You start believing what people are saying about you.”
The widespread rumours of drug abuse? “Nothing to it. There were no drugs.” He says GM Bryan Murray questioned him whether he was doing drugs, and, if so, rehab was offered.
Why the drug rumours? “I don’t know. People see you out, see you around at places, stories get sensationalized. The last year I didn’t talk to the media. I should have been more accessible and open, but I couldn’t look at them. I was so frustrated over all the negative stuff.
“My mother would tell me, ‘Well, quit if that will make you happy.’ She just wants me to be happy. But quitting hockey won’t make me happy. Even if my arm was falling off I’d say, ‘OK, well, fix it.’ I won’t quit.”
Nor, at 28, will he quit adding to his tattoos. “They all mean something personal. I’d get a new tattoo to uplift me when I was having a tough time.” But will the self-professed new Ray Emery now be getting rid of his tattoo that says Anger Is A Gift? “No. It means if you’re passionate enough about something, you’ll do something about it. I was never a bad person, even though I started to think I was. I’ll always be a competitor. If I get into a fight on the ice, it happens. I won’t be intimidated.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “Sometime when I’m in a hotel, I’ll look at my face in the mirror and say to myself, ‘Where are you at, what are you doing, how did you get there, where do you want to go?’ ”
And you’ve got it all figured out now?
“You never stop asking.”