Muckler saw more in Emery than a controversial mask

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

On every team, in every season, there are human dynamics that either strengthen or destroy. In the end, the game always is played by people and there is no horizon that can limit the impact of that one, simple fact.

If you grab the standings, you'll find the Ottawa Senators atop the Eastern Conference standings, winners (after last night's 6-3 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia) of 12 of their past 14.

Much, maybe most of this, is because of the work of goalie Ray Emery.

This, of course, cannot be. Dominik Hasek, just now back to light skating after a groin injury, was supposed to be the Senators' first great goalie since players wore leather helmets.

UNCONVENTIONAL

Hasek is a genius, a spectacularly unconventional thinker who plays chess on the ice while everybody else plays checkers. But getting your head around the time frame for a Dominik Hasek recovery is like trying to catch a leaf blown off the top of a tree. The moment you think you have it is precisely the moment you don't.

That can be a very destructive thing to a team burdened by playoff failures, especially one based in a city so obsessed with past defeats they still care deeply about the Maple Leafs.

But thanks to Emery, if Hasek shocks the hockey world by returning on schedule in early April, the Senators will be a stronger, more resilient group, 20 Dorothys who discover that it was never about the ruby slippers. If Hasek pulls the shute, the Sens look like they can win with the guy they've got.

BROAD INTERESTS

"I think this stretch has been really important," said Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson. "Not just for Ray but the team as well."

Thirty seconds spent with Emery tells you he's smart, articulate guy. His dad was a steelworker at Dofasco in Hamilton. His mom became a caregiver for the elderly after the kids were out of the house.

Emery's interests are broad.

"I'm kind of different from most hockey players where I love sports, not necessarily (just) hockey," he said.

That includes boxing, a craft practised by Mike Tyson who Emery immortalized on his mask in January. You probably remember the juxtaposition of Tyson's image on Emery's much-tattooed physique, graphically displayed in the local papers, was starting to make people nervous.

Hockey easily is the most conservative of the big four sports. Plenty of players are tattooed but masks are reserved for homages, Borje Salming (Mikael Telqvist) and Jacques Plante (Jose Theodore). It has been an unspoken code that convicted rapists need not apply.

Into this strode general manager John Muckler. At 72, he has been in hockey for twice as long as Emery has been alive.

Here's what's important about this story, and what you can take from it.

Muckler saw a good person, a player who wanted to be noticed instead of shuttled aside by Hasek's dominance. The mask, the tattoos, were about a 23-year-old guy thrashing about for an identity.

"He wanted a little attention, he wasn't getting any with Dom around, not playing any games," Muckler said.

Emery and Muckler sat down. The message was simple enough: That thing that you're doing, we don't do that here.

"I just told him the truth," Muckler said. "In my opinion, what life is all about. 'Someday, you're going to get a little bit older and your opinions are going to change. Don't hurt yourself before you get a little bit older and get a little more mature than what you are right now.' "

An identity, Muckler stressed, is built in 60-minute increments. A guy who coached Wayne Gretzky, Grant Fuhr and Mark Messier might know a bit about that.

The mask was gone after one game. When the trade deadline came, and with the entire league saying he needed another goalie, Muckler said he was more than content with Emery.

Recognized and respected by his boss, Emery has been superb down the stretch.

The decision to lose the mask, Muckler said, matters because it signalled Emery's decision to channel every bit of energy into being a player.

"You had to get rid of the other stuff before he started playing well," Muckler said.

"He's a hockey guy," Emery said. "He kind of understands where guys are coming from. It doesn't matter that there's a generation gap there.

"Bottom line, like me he likes winning and he likes competing."


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