PHILADELPHIA – Ray Emery pulled up to the rink in a white Lamborghini. He pulled on his No. 29 Flyers sweater and tried to pass on some tips to a group of youth hockey players on how to improve their games.
The impressionable group selected to receive tutoring from the former Stanley Cup goalie had more pressing questions than whether to use a “stand up” or “butterfly” method.
“Why do you like to fight?” asked one player.
“Do you win all your fights?” chimed another.
That was enough for one of the Ed Snider Youth Foundation instructors, who sounded more like a team’s beleaguered public relations director when he interrupted and cut off all fighting-related questions. The rest of the brief Q&A featured softballs and not direct interrogation about Emery’s colourful, and temperamental, style of play.
If a one-year banishment to Russia couldn’t rattle Emery, then 50 wide-eyed hockey players dying to learn more about the newest Philadelphia Flyer surely wouldn’t shake him.
“I don’t want to have a kid drop the gloves in the classroom, so I’m not going to talk too much about that stuff,” Emery said after the tutorial ended.
The kids might have learned his win-loss record from any number of videos easily found on the Internet.
Emery shucked his gloves and mask and pounded Buffalo goalie Martin Biron, then attacked Andrew Peters in the same brawl. He slashed Montreal forward Maxim Lapierre flush across the face with his goalie stick in 2007. And Emery skated off to a huge ovation after slugging Josh Gratton in a minor league fight.
“You throw a mask on and it’s like a different person, like a character,” Emery said. “You watch yourself on TV and it’s not me doing that.”
No wonder “Razor” Ray’s helmet bears the painted likenesses of Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins and the fictional Rocky Balboa.
Emery liked to fight as if he were a blue-line goon. That could really pump up a team. Problem was, there were times he was the life of the party in Ottawa. That was all fun until he started skipping practice and tangling with teammates.
From Ottawa to Russia to Philadelphia, Emery has been dogged by questions about his past. Exiled to the Kontinental Hockey League, Emery worked to shape up his personal life and chances for a second shot at the NHL. The Flyers are ready to give it to him, and believe Emery can help them win their first Stanley Cup since 1975.
“I think Ray’s a highly motivated young man,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “No one questions his ability as a goaltender.”
It’s his reputation that took a blow harder than the ones he delivered on the ice. Emery, who turns 27 this month, says he’s matured, settled down, and realizes his combativeness on the ice can’t carry over into everyday life.
“I’m an intense guy. I think that’s one thing where I separate the two a lot more,” he said. “Before, I was a pretty serious guy around most people and kind of focused all the time. You’ve got to let yourself relax sometimes. People know around the rink, if there’s a game day, give me my space.”
He showed he can be a No. 1 goalie in 2007 when he won 33 games for the Senators, recorded three shutouts in the playoffs and led them to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since they returned to the league in 1992.
Emery also proved in Ottawa he could stuff a Stanley Cup with his lengthy list of transgressions.
Tardy for practice, scraps with teammates. He sulked when he lost his starting job the year after the Cup run. And his personal life was dissected, resulting in rumours that he partied too hard. Emery said he was hounded any time he went out in Ottawa, even just pumping gas, and the hard-living image took over the homebody reality.
Former Senators coach John Paddock said the organization tried everything from tough love to easy second chances to get through to Emery. Nothing worked.
“I just don’t think he was in the right place to play the game,” Paddock said. “He wasn’t prepared to play, he wasn’t preparing to play. He wasn’t taking the game seriously.”
Emery said he was simply enjoying the kind of fun many young, rich males experience in their early 20s.
“The novelty of going out, or doing certain things wears off,” Emery said. “I’m always changing it around. I’ve learned tons of lessons. I don’t really want to get into it. … Some things start to die off.”
But it wasn’t just the partying or his fiery demeanour on the ice that sparked Emery’s troubles. Emery, who is black, was repeatedly pulled over in his white Hummer by the police – he once said 30 times in two years. A senior citizen claimed Emery threatened to kill him in a road-rage incident.
Paddock couldn’t handle the combustible Emery and was fired 64 games into the 2007-08 season. Fed up with his antics, the Senators waived Emery at the end of that year.
Paddock, now the Flyers assistant general manager, has talked briefly with Emery since reuniting and feels the goalie is sincere in making the needed changes to succeed in Philadelphia.
“He talked about not screwing up and knowing it’s his last chance,” he said.
Holmgren had some interest in Emery at the start of last year’s training camp. By then, Emery was already locked into his contract with the Russian team, Atlant Mytishchi.
Emery’s temper flared again when he was yanked from a game, assaulting the team trainer who had tried to place a hat on his head. That video became a viral sensation.
The attack did little to quell his hothead image.
Emery said the media exaggerated anger-management classes he took in the minor leagues. He says he attended just to get a suspension for fighting reduced. Emery, though, has willingly visited with a sports psychologist and already met with one on the Flyers staff. He said he’s learned how to “mentally train” himself to act appropriately in off-ice situations.
“I don’t put a mask on and say I’m going to fight tonight,” Emery said. “I put a mask on and say I’m going to win tonight.”
Still, Emery enjoyed his time playing far from the North American spotlight.
“There was a lot going on in Ottawa, media-wise. There’s not a lot of breathing room there,” he said. “It was a welcome little vacation for me (in Russia).”
Holmgren inquired again about Emery in February and decided to pursue him once the Flyers cut ties with Biron and Antero Niittymaki. Emery joked that Holmgren was his “best buddy” for weeks early this summer, as the GM cautiously took his time to decide if the goalie was a good fit.
“He’s clearly made some poor choices,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren, Flyers management and coach John Stevens found a player willing to accept responsibility for his mistakes. Emery signed a one-year deal in June.
“Playing in Philly, it’s crazy, but it’s not on the level where there’s only one thing going on in the city,” Emery said. “It’s cool.”
If Emery can keep his cool, then maybe his second chance really will pay off in Philadelphia.