After 'hiding from everybody,' Emery tries to right ship
In the end, no one knows just where Ray Emery has been except Ray Emery.
No one knows how far he traveled from where he wanted to be, how different he became from the person he wanted to be.
The one thing that seems certain is that Ray Emery realized the face looking back at him from his mirror wasn't who he wanted to be. So, here he is, some 4,000 miles from Ottawa and the National Hockey League and a career that became a train wreck almost overnight, trying to find his way.
"You know what they say the definition of insanity is?" Emery said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "It's when you do exactly the same thing over and over and expect a different result."
With the help of professional therapy, the support of his family and a fresh slate awaiting him in Russia, where he will tend goal for Atlant Mytishchi of the new Continental Hockey League, Emery said he's ready to stop doing the same old things that saw him descend in startling fashion from a starting netminder with a Stanley Cup finalist to a pariah with a reputation in tatters and essentially no NHL options.
"I had lots of help," Emery said. "I brought my family into things. I had friends I had to stop associating with. And I've got friends that I'm a lot closer with."
It took the better part of two weeks to get our phone conversation lined up, and there was a feeling it might never happen, that perhaps Emery had no intention of addressing these issues with us. Yet he was text-messaging apologies and working to get a time lined up around his schedule as the team heads to training camp about an hour outside Helsinki, Finland.
What can you tell from a voice half a world away? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
Emery sounded upbeat about his new hockey adventure, even if it was one that essentially was foisted on him when interest around the NHL dried up after the Ottawa Senators placed him on waivers, then bought him out of his contract this offseason.
"On my way to the airport, I was like, 'What's going on here?' It sunk in there. 'Oh man, this could be something.' It's gone way better than I thought it would so far," Emery said.
"The Russian guys are cool," Emery said. "They're hockey players. I get the jokes that are happening."
The experience is a reminder of the dozens of European players Emery has seen come to North America to play hockey, trapped by their lack of English-language knowledge and relying on the benevolence of teammates in doing the simplest things, such as ordering food and finding out what time the team bus leaves the hotel.
"But hockey's hockey is what I'm kind of realizing," Emery said.
If that's the case, maybe this is the place for Emery, who has come from a place where he and the game had become geographical and personal strangers. As far back as the Senators' dynamic playoff run of 2007, Emery said he was feeling like he was losing control over everything from his personal life to his hockey life.
"Even back in the playoffs in '07, it was overwhelming. Even at that point, I was sick of everything," Emery said. "I was hiding from everybody. I stayed in my house for a year and a half."
After posting a 12-3 run to reach their first Stanley Cup finals that spring, the Senators lost to the Anaheim Ducks in five games. Along the way, Emery established himself as something of a cult figure with his flashy clothes, exotic cars and extravagant lifestyle.
Emery's reputation was as a man who hung out with a group on the fringe. Rockers, rappers, party people. He liked that crowd, and they liked having him around.
"I was running around here and there, girls and this and that. A lot of kind of bull---- around me," he said.
When the team was doing well -- the 2006-07 season and subsequent playoffs -- "it was just, like, OK," Emery said.
But when he and the team went off the rails last season, the rumors about Emery's partying and drug use spiraled out of control. The team was aware of the rumors, as were Ottawa police. (Senators GM Bryan Murray wasn't available for comment.)
The fact that Emery was late for practice and quarreled with teammates did nothing to lessen the feeling that Emery was off the rails. When asked about his drinking, Emery suggested he is like every normal 25-year-old man.
"I'm not drinking excessively, that's for sure," he said.
There were a bunch of 'yes men' that were around. I had to cut them out. I'm not a dumb guy. I'm sure I was probably using them for something, and they were probably using me for something.
--Ray Emery on past relationships he's cut off since leaving to play in Europe
As for the drug use, Emery did not confront the issue head-on, but when asked to describe his use of recreational drugs, he said: "I really don't want to go into details. I'm not a saint and I'm not in jail, either. I think I've learned a lot of lessons. I didn't feel comfortable. I got myself into some bad ways. It took some time to clear my head."
Many in Emery's circle helped him believe that whatever problems he was having were someone else's problems.
"The kind of people that are kind of patting you on the back when you don't deserve to be patted on the back," he said. "I don't think [my behavior] was at the level that it was made out to be.
"I don't think that I was any different than a majority of other guys that have played or are playing who are my age as far as that goes. But I really put myself out there. I made it so all eyes were on me."
Whatever he was doing or not doing, Emery has no issue with the NHL and its drug-testing policy. NHL sources told ESPN.com Emery has no "status issues" with the league. Once his one-year contract is up in Russia, Emery can return to the league if an NHL team wants to tender a contract.
To get to that point, Emery said he realized he had to distance himself from who he had become and the people who helped him get there. He said the enablers are now gone; or, more to the point, Emery is gone from them and, in some ways, now stands alone.
"There were a bunch of 'yes men' that were around. I had to cut them out," Emery said. "I'm not a dumb guy. I'm sure I was probably using them for something, and they were probably using me for something.
"I'm not too sorry about [the split]."
At one point last season, longtime agent J.P. Barry was on the verge of walking away from Emery. Barry has known Emery since the netminder was 16.
Barry told ESPN.com that Emery "just stopped communicating on any level" last season.
But after seeking professional help, Emery wrote a letter to Barry asking for his help in turning his career around.
"He did things on his own. It was something he wanted to do," Barry told ESPN.com.
In recent weeks, Barry said he's noted a different tone to Emery's communication. The goalie is more upbeat, more willing to accept responsibility for what he's done.
"If he stays focused the way he is now, I think he's a top-15 NHL talent," Barry said.
Former teammate Mike Commodore's seat was next to Emery's in the Sens' dressing room after the team acquired the defenseman from Carolina before the February trade deadline. He went out with Emery a couple of times and noticed how people watched him closely.
"He's tattooed up. Everybody knows who he is. He couldn't get away from it," Commodore said. "Everybody's eyes were all over him."
Commodore went through a period early in his career when he was seen as a party boy, and even if it wasn't true, he said it took a long time to dissuade people from that line of thinking. Since then, he's been to the Stanley Cup finals with Calgary in 2004 and won it all with Carolina in 2006. This offseason, he signed a five-year deal with an emerging Columbus club.
He said the stories about Emery are wildly exaggerated.
"Honestly, I like Ray," Commodore said. "Ray Emery's a good guy. And it went right around the room. I wasn't the only guy that liked him. He wasn't a distraction at all."
Those close to Emery suggest at least some of his problems may stem from issues with anger.
A former defenseman, Emery was cut from a series of junior teams before finally landing a spot with the Junior C Dunnville Terriers. They were terrible, but Emery wasn't. He went on to land a job with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. In his second season there, he was involved in four on-ice fights -- a significant number for a goaltender. That summer in 2001, Emery was drafted 99th overall by the Senators.
After a banner final season in junior, Emery went on to the Senators' top farm team in Binghamton in 2002-03. He was named to the all-rookie team but was suspended twice for on-ice outbursts. The next season, Emery was suspended three games for a stick attack on Michel Ouellet. He was suspended three more games for retaliating against Denis Hamel after Hamel used a racial slur against Emery, who is African-Canadian.
After Emery joined the NHL, he had squabbles with teammates. Before the start of last season, there was an incident of road rage in which an elderly Ottawa-area motorist said Emery threatened to kill him.
Emery, himself, said it's less about being angry than about having too much, too soon, too easily.
"Things have always come easily to me. I want everything and I want it easily," he said.
A year ago, after offseason wrist surgery, things didn't come easily, and Emery said he wasn't prepared to do the work.
"Obviously, I've had bad games. I've had bad days, rough weeks. But [I had] never had a bad year, like, on every level. Nothing went well," Emery said. "I had no fun. I didn't play well. I didn't accept responsibility. I ended up with a failing grade on every level."
Emery said his visiting a therapist wasn't specifically to address anger-management issues, although he's been involved in anger-management programs in the past.
"It was good to talk about things," he said.
In fact, he said, if he'd been angry, he'd have quit. But he didn't.
"I just tried to get back to where I came from. I'm not a rock star. I'm a kid from Hamilton. I'm trying to be a bit more down-to-earth," Emery said.
The netminder knows these are just words that try and put what has happened into perspective and that speak to what he hopes to accomplish in the future. The words ultimately will be little more than smoke in the wind compared with his actions in the coming weeks and months.
The temptation will be to try and bite off too much too soon. Does one good session, one good game, a string of good games, mean he's ready to prove himself at the NHL level?
"If I have a good year in Russia, it's a good year. But it's a good year in Russia," Emery said. "But I've kind of come to terms with that. It's not like I'm dreading anything. I live for this stuff."
Before he left for Finland, Emery told his parents he hasn't been this excited in a long time. "I told them I didn't remember being this excited for something for the past five years.
"I definitely have something to prove. I kind of took stock of that during the short summer I had. I know I can play and I know I can play well. I know if I put my hard hat on, I know I can be a player."
If anyone thinks Emery is headed to Russia with his tail between his legs, he isn't. When it's suggested his wardrobe, maybe a little too haute couture for the lads from Arnprior and the rest of the Ottawa Valley, likely will fit in perfectly in downtown Moscow, Emery lights up at the idea.
"I think the Russians are onto something," he said with a laugh. "There's Gucci and Prada everywhere."
Here's hoping Ray Emery is onto something, too.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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