- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
- 0 Shares
TORONTO -- Sometime next week, Ray Emery will don his goalie equipment and hit the ice for the first time since undergoing surgery last spring to fix a hip injury that odds are should have ended his NHL career.
It may still. But not without a fight.
As far as anyone can tell, no NHL player has come back from the type of hip surgery the 28-year-old underwent in April. Diagnosed with avascular necrosis -- essentially, the top of the ball in his right hip deteriorated to its core -- Emery underwent an elaborate operation that featured bone grafted from his lower leg being inserted in the ball of his hip. In the past, his condition would have necessitated a full hip replacement, but this very specialized procedure avoided that.
"Usually when you have this type of thing done, they just want you to walk again," Emery told ESPN.com Thursday during a break in his rehab in downtown Toronto.
Maybe so, Emery thought, but he wasn't ready to give up on his NHL career. He told the doctor, David Ruch at Duke University Medical Center (one of the few in North America who performs this type of surgery), that he had higher hopes.
"The doctor was understanding of what I wanted," Emery said. "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."
The road back has been difficult, to say the least. Especially right after the surgery last spring.
"It was tough," he said. "First of all, the pain was pretty wild. I was in a hospital bed for a month in my living room. I pushed the button, rolled myself up and watched TV until 9 p.m. Pushed the button back down and basically passed out for a month. It was like, 'What's going on?'"
A summer mostly spent at his cottage in Muskoka north of Toronto allowed him, however, to sit back and analyze his life. The one-time trouble child with the Ottawa Senators had now doubly realized how lucky he had been to play in the NHL.
"It gave me a chance to chill out and take stock of things," Emery said.
Having to find work in Russia two seasons ago in the KHL was the first dose of reality. But now his career was hanging by a thread after his surgery and painful recovery.
"This is something I love to do and I don't want to take it for granted," Emery said. "You can look at this as a bad thing or you can look at it as a chance to really realize that you should give it all you got because it's not over yet. Give it your best to get back at it."
"In the last two years Ray really became passionate about goaltending again," said his agent, J.P. Barry of CAA Sports. "Ray has taken a very focused and mature approach to his rehabilitation."
Six weeks ago Emery was cleared to start rehab. He was in good hands. Respected trainer Matt Nichol was brought into the process. But not without both men feeling each other out.
Nichol, who has worked with the likes of Mats Sundin and Mike Cammalleri, as well as a long list of athletes from other sports, laid down the cards with Emery. He didn't sugarcoat the fact the goalie had a long road ahead of him.
"It brought me back down to earth and made me respect what I was trying to do and how serious I had to take it," Emery said of the first meeting with Nichol.
"I wanted to be very honest with him because that's always the best policy," Nichol, also the former trainer of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said Thursday. "Also, this is a huge time commitment on my part. We've literally been working together twice a day, every day, for six weeks. So I had to make sure he was mentally prepared. This is not like going to the gym three to four days a week for an hour. This is a whole different ballgame. And I didn't know Ray at the time. So I laid it all out. I might have even painted more a grim picture. I wanted to give him the worst-case scenario. He said he was up for it. And he has been. He's been incredible."
And so began the long hours under Nichol's watch. There's been time spent in the swimming pool, on the mat, even some yoga and acupuncture.
"And I'm just on my way to Pilates right now," Emery said Thursday morning.
"Basically everything but the kitchen sink," Nichol said. "That's what it's going to take to get this guy back. We really have to go outside the box and try everything we can.
"We're not in there doing bench presses and arm curls," Nichol added. "We're doing a lot of exercises that are frustrating. For a guy who's an elite athlete, to have to go back to the basics and do these rudimentary exercises, it can be really challenging mentally. But it's what he has to do if he wants to come back, and his work ethic has been beyond reproach."
So far, so good. Emery said he feels great. And soon comes the part that makes him giddy. Back on the ice. And with that, Nichol worries.
"This is the most challenging part of the rehab,'' Nichol said. "Is he going to get out there and get frustrated? Or maybe he feels really good out there and he wants to do too much, too soon. He's been so patient and diligent doing these tedious exercises so far at this point that I think he gets it. We're going to have to approach the ice the same way -- slow and steady."
As for a timeline for Emery's possible return, Nichol bristled at the mere suggestion. He doesn't operate that way. Ray will be ready when Ray will be ready.
But Emery has a soft timeline in mind.
"We'll see how it goes," he said. "I really want to give myself a chance to play and play well when I come back. I'm not rushed. I just want to protect that hip and make sure I'm ready to go and make sure that lower leg is ready to go, make sure I'm in great shape. And then give it my best in a good situation. Whenever that time comes around I'll be ready to rock. I think the earliest is maybe January."
He became an unrestricted free agent when his contract with the Philadelphia Flyers ran out June 30. Emery said he's kept in touch with some Flyers players, but at this point it's not clear at all where his NHL future would lie once he's cleared to return.
"I enjoyed Ray when he was here, I thought he played well for us," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said Thursday. "It's something that if he were able to come back and play, we'd certainly have interest in talking to him."
The only thing that is crystal clear at this point is that Emery, who sometimes gave the impression in his younger days in Ottawa that he didn't give a damn, wants to play goalie again in the NHL like nothing he's ever wanted more.
"I appreciate what I've been afforded in playing a game for a living," Emery said. "I've had a lot of bumps along the road that were partially self-inflicted and partially just a bit of bad luck. But I'm definitely not going down without a fight."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
15dScott Burnside and Craig Custance