Former Senators, Flyers goalie has to clear waivers before starting in AHL

Ray Emery’s inspiring comeback from an injury that should have made it hard to walk normally again, let alone play goal professionally, will continue after signing a one-year, two-way deal with the Anaheim Ducks on Monday.

First the contract details: Emery, who has been out of hockey almost exactly a year, agreed to a deal that will pay him $500,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL. The 28-year-old has to clear waivers as a veteran before reporting to the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse, but unlike Evgeni Nabokov, who had to clear before playing in the NHL because he’d played in Europe before signing, Emery’s status is strictly because he’s played six NHL seasons, and all veterans must be waived through the league before being demoted.

(Update: Emery cleared waivers Tuesday at noon and was assigned to Syracuse).

Anaheim could have sent him down on a conditioning assignment, just as Toronto did late last week with Jonas Gustavsson to avoid losing him on waivers, but such demotions are limited to two weeks. The Flyers did get a brief extension on Michael Leighton earlier this season when he first came back from back surgery, but in this case it seems both Emery and the Ducks believe he will need a lot more time to get his game back after being out of action since his last game with Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 2010.

With a rash of injuries to goaltenders all over the NHL (including lightheadedness and fatigue for Anaheim No.1 Jonas Hiller) that has left some teams dipping as far down as the Central Hockey League, there has been plenty of speculation about whether Emery will clear waivers. But the fact any team that claims him would have to keep him in the NHL makes it a lot more likely he will make his return with the Ducks, and because his AHL salary is less than $125,000 Emery is not subject to recall waivers if or when Anaheim decides to bring him back up.

“Ray Emery has been a solid NHL netminder for several years and is only 28 years old,” Ducks Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob Murray said in a team release. “We are going to give him a chance to go to Syracuse and establish himself again. He’s worked hard to get back into shape and we are looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

Which of course brings us back to the inspiration.

After leaving the Flyers with what was first believed to be a torn labrum in his hip, Emery ended up needing surgery in April 2010 to repair a condition, called avascular necrosis, that starved the top of his femur of proper blood flow and left the ball in his hip joint almost completely degraded. It’s the same injury that derailed and eventually ended the career of two-sport star Bo Jackson.

In fact, Emery’s comeback even inspired Jackson, turning him into a hockey fan, according to the Vancouver Sun:

“I take my hat off to anyone who is going through what I went through 15-20 years ago for the simple reason that it’s a lot of hard work – a lot of hard work,” Jackson told The Sun. “Most people don’t realize, they think just because he’s a pro athlete he’s supposed to come back and play. Not from an injury like this. It takes a very, very special and driven person. He’s got to have a different makeup to want to do all the little things he needs to do to compete on a professional level.”

Instead of a hip replacement that would have almost certainly ended any chance of playing again, Emery had bone grafted from his lower leg and inserted in the ball of his hip, an incredibly painful procedure that left him bed ridden for more than a month. The long comeback that ensued was first, and perhaps best, detailed by ESPN.com way back in October:

“Usually when you have this type of thing done, they just want you to walk again,” Emery told ESPN.com. “The doctor was understanding of what I wanted. I told him that I could care less if I can’t walk in five years, but I want just want to play hockey for five years.”

Even if he has to do so without part of his lower leg. As CBC’s Elliotte Friedman pointed out in another great piece on Emery’s comeback, nothing was put in to replace the bottom of his fibula, which was grafted in up near his hip:

“A rod was put in to replace it, right?” he’s asked.

“No,” Emery replies.

“So, what’s there?”

“Nothing.”

“There’s nothing in your leg where that bone used to be?”

“Nope, but it’s not a load-bearing bone. So it’s not a big deal.”

So after a summer of reflection on a career that included being exiled to the KHL for 2008-09 because of a party boy image that ended any NHL interest, Emery began a rigorous rehab routine with renowned Toronto fitness guru Matt Nichol, a patience-testing twice-a-day for five months stint with everything from pilates, to yoga, to acupuncture, and even some ballet.

“We’ve done everything but thrown the kitchen sink in there,” Nichol told The Sun. “And it’s working. Ray tells me he’s doing things on the ice he could never do before the injury.”

Once he was cleared to go back on the ice, Emery began working again with Eli Wilson, his goaltending coach in Ottawa, in October and recently started practicing with the Brampton Battalion in the major junior Ontario Hockey League. Once overly reliant on his remarkable athleticism, Emery is working to minimize his movement and let his 6-foot-3 frame do more of the work.

“When you’re young, you rely on your athleticism. You’re impatient,” he told Friedman for the CBC article. “But in Philly, I was back in the net, trying to play the same game over and over. I’m trying to do a little more (blocking).”

As for his history and reputation, Emery doesn’t try to hide from it, admitting in the CBC piece that the rumours he once spent $50,000 on a Halloween party for the Senators, a team he backstopped to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, were true (“It was for the team” and “It was a great party,” he said). But if being banished to Russia didn’t provide enough perspective, the surgery did.

“I’ve taken a lot of things for granted and this has helped me realize I enjoy what I do,” Emery told the CBC. “What worked for me early in my career…how I conducted myself, some of the people I associated with, didn’t work for me later on. I didn’t deal with that very well at all. I was a kid, took things for granted…I didn’t really understand that there was more to being a player. I didn’t respect that. It caught up to me real quick.”

Fast enough for the Senators to buy him out of the three-year, $9.5 million contract extension he signed shortly after making the Cup FInals after just one season. The question now is how long it will take Emery to get back to NHL form.

“The way I feel right now, if you give me a couple of weeks worth of professional practices, I’ll be good to go,” he told The Sun.

Bo Jackson will be watching and cheering, and so should a lot of other people inspired by Emery’s newfound dedication.

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