OTTAWA - He's recovered from a career-threatening hip injury and now Ray Emery is ready to get back in the game.
It's a comeback that would be nothing short of extraordinary.
Last year, the former NHL goaltender was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a disease where the interruption of blood supply causes bone tissue to die. It's the same disease that cut Bo Jackson's career short.
In Emery's case, the ball in his right hip had deteriorated nearly to its core.
In many cases, a hip replacement would have been the answer, but Emery underwent an operation in April where doctors grafted bone from his lower leg and inserted it into the ball of the hip.
After months of recovery, the 28-year-old Emery is healthy again and hoping to land a contract in the coming weeks. He was in Ottawa on Friday taking part in an on-ice training session with goaltending coach Eli Wilson.
"I'm ready to go and start training in the American Hockey League and know that my body can take that kind of exertion," Emery said. "The hockey’s not all the way there. I feel like a player at the end of the summer who needs some training and some games to get a feeling for the game again."
Following the surgery, Emery spent a month in a hospital bed at his parents' home in Hamilton. That was followed by months on crutches before he finally started some light rehabilitation. But it wasn't until August when he started working with Matt Nichol, a former trainer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, that Emery fully realized the magnitude of his recovery.
"When I met Matt I was under the mindset that I’ll work out for a month or six weeks and then I’ll skate and I’ll be fine," said Emery. "He kind of brought me back down to earth and basically said where you were before and what you were doing before didn’t work so he kind of started from scratch."
Nichol developed a regimen that included yoga, Pilates, swimming, and acupuncture. The training was extensive as Emery worked out twice a day, every day.
"It was kind of tedious and boring at the start," said Emery. "He wasn’t as optimistic as I was which was good because it helped keep things in perspective."
The work paid off as Emery was able to return to the ice in October for some light workouts.
From the moment he got back on the ice Emery noticed a substantial improvement.
"They’ve made me so aware of my body," said Emery, whose condition was discovered when doctors sent him for an MRI because of a nagging groin injury.
Emery rose to prominence in 2007 when he led the Senators to the Stanley Cup final, but the road turned rocky after that and the team eventually bought out the final two years of his contract following a series of on and off-ice incidents. Emery then went on to sign a contract in Russia’s KHL before finally returning to the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers in June 2009.
"I grew up here (in Ottawa), I grew up playing hockey," Emery said of his controversial stint with the Sens. "It was the last part of being a kid for me. It seems like forever ago. It was exciting and it was fun and that’s how I remember it."
In talking to Emery, it’s clear the once flamboyant boy has grown into a man. He’s willing to own up to his mistakes and in many ways, admits the surgery may have been for the best.
He knows there will always be those who will question his character, but says the time away has allowed him to get a new perspective.
"I appreciate the lessons I’ve learned," he said. "Maybe I took a long journey to make them, halfway around the world, but it’s a process I had to go through. I’ve just got to be happy with myself. I continue to work on growing as a person and being comfortable with myself and I wasn’t always that comfortable with myself in the past. I feel real good mentally."
Wilson says it's time for everyone to move on.
"I think his past is his past," he said. "I think he’s matured and put that beyond him and he’s ready for the challenge. I don’t think that’s a question or should be a question in anyone’s mind."
Wilson has been working with Emery for seven years and believes the netminder is in the best condition of his life.
"He’s taken so much time to get his body into this type of condition," said Wilson. "It speaks to his work ethic. His body hasn’t been in this good a shape every in his playing career. To get a goaltender that comes out like that is a real treat to work with on the ice."
In 163 NHL regular-season games, Emery posted an 87-51-15 record with a 2.70 goals-against average.
Emery and his agent J.P. Barry have put the word out that he's almost ready to return, and Emery says he keeps an eye on the injury list to see which teams might be in need of a goalie.
Now, it's a matter of finding one willing take a chance.
"I want to play in the NHL," said Emery. "If all goes well I can’t see a reason why I wouldn’t be back."