SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Ray Emery leaned forward on the locker-room bench, began removing his goaltender pads, and breathed a satisfied sigh of relief. After more than a year of doubts about his health, he was back between the pipes.
And it felt so very good.
"It's an understatement to say that I'm happy to be here," said Emery, who was recently signed as a free agent by the Anaheim Ducks and assigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League. "I'm kind of rusty, but glad to be here. I just want to make the most of it, help whatever team I'm on."
That team is Anaheim now. After three starts in five days for the Crunch, Emery, who underwent hip surgery in April, was called up by the Ducks on Wednesday.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who went from playing in the Stanley Cup final to an afterthought in the blink of an eye.
Emery's NHL career came to a sudden halt last season with the Philadelphia Flyers. He wasn't playing well and was pulled against the Washington Capitals after allowing five goals. Tests and an MRI showed a tear in his abdominal wall, and the condition had deteriorated to the point where surgery was the only option.
It was more than a tear, though. A second look at the MRI revealed some abnormalities on the right side of the femoral head. Emery was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hip, the same bone disorder that curtailed Bo Jackson's athletic career.
Emery knows he's a lucky man. The disease normally progresses to joint destruction, requiring total hip replacement, and the collapse of the femoral head usually occurs within two years after developing hip pain.
"I didn't really experience any soreness with it, but it was close to collapsing. Obviously, you've got to stop that," Emery said. "Having news like that was kind of an eye opener. But I'm pretty good when that type of problem approaches. I just kind of figure out the next step."
The next step was a bone graft. Doctors took 13 centimetres of the fibula in his right leg, drilled a hole into the femoral head, and inserted the healthy bone. The operation halted the deterioration, and Emery refocused on hockey. He became an unrestricted free agent last July, and in August was given the OK to begin the rehabilitation process.
"The rehab was long. It wasn't crazy and intense every day, but it was every day, a couple of times a day, very regimented," Emery said. "It wasn't easy, but at the same time it wasn't like I was in crazy pain every day. I was given a plan and I stuck to it."
By November, he was able to drop into the butterfly position. And two months ago, he began working out three or four times a week, skating primarily with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.
The Ducks were willing to take a chance on the combustible Emery because Jonas Hiller has been sidelined by a recurrence of dizziness and fatigue and backup Curtis McElhinney was shaky, at best. The St. Louis Blues beat McElhinney for two goals in seven seconds on Saturday.
Emery signed with Anaheim on Feb. 7. He reported to Syracuse a week later, and was welcomed with open arms.
"It's good to see him back," Crunch winger David Laliberte said. "He was really professional. He came to the rink and was really focused."
Emery's swan song for the Crunch was Tuesday night, when he stopped 34 of 37 shots against Charlotte. He denied three of the four skaters he faced in a shootout to lift the Crunch to a 4-3 win over the Checkers.
"My hip feels great. I'm excited about that," said Emery, who was 2-1 for the Crunch. "The body feels pretty good considering I'm jumping in halfway through the year. I feel like it'll only get better."
Four years ago, Emery, one of the few black goaltenders in NHL history, was at the top of his game. Chosen 99th overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2001 draft, Emery made the big club on a full-time basis in 2005-06. The next season, he won 33 games.
He also racked up 30 minutes in penalties, which included a memorable fight with former Sabres goalie Martin Biron. Emery kept smiling as he threw punch after punch.
But he's most remembered for leading the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup final. He recorded three shutouts in 20 playoff games before losing the final series to the Ducks.
Success was fleeting, though.
The following season, Emery began showing up late for practice, had scraps with teammates, and lost his starting job. Rumours surfaced that he was partying hard, enjoying the good life too much, hanging out with the wrong crowd. The flashy clothes and exotic cars only added to that perception.
Former Senators coach John Paddock said the team tried everything, to no avail. Emery was waived in June 2008.
Less than a month later, he signed a one-year contract to play in Russia. But it didn't take long for that journey to feature another altercation—a fight with a team trainer after a bad outing.
"Razor Ray" still seemed to be the same guy who was involved in four on-ice fights in his second season in juniors with the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The guy who was named to the AHL's all-rookie team in 2001-02, but was suspended twice for on-ice outbursts. The goalie who was suspended for three games for a stick attack on Michel Ouellet, and three more for retaliating against Denis Hamel after a racial slur.
Keep in mind, Emery is a devotee of boxing. And he is still wearing one of the helmets he donned in Philadelphia—the one featuring the painted images of Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins and the fictional Rocky Balboa.
But, perhaps, you won't see that passion played out on the ice anymore. Especially since he has acquired professional help through therapy.
"What's done in his past is past," Syracuse coach Mark Holick said. "He's been in the heat of the battle. He's been in the Stanley Cup playoffs and Stanley Cup finals. He's a guy we can all learn a lot from the way he carries himself."
At 28, Emery is well aware this might be his last chance in the NHL. Win or lose, at least he gave it one last shot.
"I'm comfortable with myself away from the game," he said. "I love playing the game, and I wouldn't want to give it up for anything. But at the same time, it's not the end of the world and I took it like that.
"I wanted to give it my all and not go out with any regrets. That's what I did and it worked out in my favour. I've been given an opportunity to play again."