OTTAWA – Ray Emery always gave the Senators plenty to talk about during his time in Ottawa.
And although more than 19 months have passed since he last suited up here, he was again a popular topic of conversation ahead of the Senators’ first meeting with their flashy former goaltender since he left under a cloud of controversy.
With Emery now playing a key role for the Philadelphia Flyers, the Senators are expected Thursday to renew acquaintances with a netminder who quickly achieved success in Canada’s capital and just as quickly wore out his welcome, forcing Ottawa to buy out his contract following the 2007-08 season.
“I think he became a distraction toward the end for sure and both parties needed to move on, for him to be successful and for our team to be successful,” centre Jason Spezza recalled Wednesday before the Senators left for Philadelphia.
Emery spent parts of five seasons with the Senators and helped them to their greatest success – a berth in the 2007 Stanley Cup final.
It was that run, and his flashy lifestyle that included fancy clothes and fast cars, which helped him achieve hero status in Ottawa.
However, a series of indiscretions – including a missed flight in the playoffs, arriving late for practice on numerous occasions, fights with teammates in practice, a much-publicized road-rage incident with a senior citizen – all contributed to his becoming persona non grata with the fans, media, and most importantly, Senators management.
“He created a little bit of it himself, but it also snowballed and people seemed like they wanted to run him out of town towards the end there,” said Spezza, who remains a close friend of Emery.
“Maybe he got a little bit more attention that he wouldn’t have got if he was somewhere else (than in Canada). He created a bit of the problem, but I think a lot of it was facilitated by outside sources later on and it just seemed like people kind of wanted to see him gone.”
Despite his controversial time in Ottawa and acrimonious departure, the 27-year-old native of Cayuga, Ont., near Hamilton, remains in the good books of his former teammates.
“He’s a good guy and he had a bad rap here, but as far as in the dressing room, guys liked him and that’s basically the bottom line,” said Senators right-winger Chris Neil, who once engaged in a standoff with Emery at practice.
After Emery’s departure from Ottawa, he underwent eight weeks of behavioural counselling and signed to play in Russia with Atlant Mytishchi of the Kontinental Hockey League in an attempt to rebuild his damaged reputation.
It apparently worked as the Flyers gave him a fresh start in the NHL by signing him to a one-year deal in the off-season. He’s been a big part of their solid start to the season, and the Senators don’t begrudge him his success.
“He’s real happy, he’s winning games and he’s enjoying Philadelphia,” said Spezza, who keeps in touch with Emery regularly.
The Senators are also in a much happier place these days.
After enduring another dismal season last year that resulted in the firing of coach Craig Hartsburg and spending the off-season dealing with the shock trade request of star left-winger Dany Heatley, their dressing room is relatively controversy-free.
While there is still plenty of discussion over the quiet offensive start to Alex Kovalev’s career in Ottawa or Jonathan Cheechoo’s scoring drought – which ended Tuesday night with his first goal as a Senator – for example, it’s much easier for the players to come to the rink than it has been in the past.
“Not just to play, but to come to the rink every day and talk about the normal stuff, the hockey stuff,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who didn’t practise Wednesday but is expected to play Thursday.
“It’s part of team sports that you’re always going to face off-ice incidents or whatever and there will always be stories to be written about, so it’s something you have to deal with, but obviously so far this year’s been hockey and that’s nice.”
Also, as much as Emery became a villain in Ottawa, Heatley’s stance, which led to his eventual trade to the San Jose Sharks in September, ensured that there would be an even-less popular former Senator in the fans’ books.
“I can’t say there was a chemistry problem (with Emery around),” Alfredsson said. “He went through some tough times personally as well that affected his hockey and you just try to help a teammate like that who is going through tough times. It’s good to see that he’s been able to battle through it, come back and be able to help a team again. As a person, he’s a good guy.”