For Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Ray Emery, Christmas has indeed come early this year. After battling back from a potential career-ending injury two seasons ago, the 29-year-old has taken over the bulk of the netminding duties for the month of December on one of the premier NHL franchises.
Even though his time as the 'Hawks starter may eventually prove to be temporary, Emery's recovery from extensive hip surgery is nothing short of miraculous.
After leading the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, Emery left Canada's Capital abruptly after the 2007-08 season amid controversy. After being disciplined by the team for being late to team practices, as well as several incidents between Emery and teammates, the goalie was waived.
Finding no interest from other NHL clubs, Emery instead signed a contract with Mytishchi Atlant of the Kontinental Hockey League. The change in scenery didn't bring about a harmonic existence for Emery, however, as he became embroiled in squabbles in Russia, as well.
'Razor' was pulled from a game after giving up three early goals, then was involved in a physical altercation with the team's trainer. Later in the season, Emery held out due to a contract dispute. After returning, the backstop finished the year with stellar numbers; 22-8-0, with a 2.12 goals-against average, and a .926 save percentage, and two shutouts.
Finding renewed interest from the NHL he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, a team haunted by a mixture of subpar goaltending and epic failures between the pipes for two decades.
Though he was a good teammate and fitt in with his new club, Emery would end up enduring a nightmarish 2009-10 season. After posting a solid 16-11-1 mark, with a 2.64 GAA and .905 save percentage for a wildly inconsistent Flyers' club, he suffered an abdominal injury that required surgery in December of 2009. As he was still on the mend from that procedure, Emery was also experiencing pain in his hip in what was originally believed to be a torn labrum -- a somewhat common injury for a netminder. Upon further testing, it was discovered that he instead was suffering from a condition known as avascular necrosis.
According to eMedicine.com, this is the definition of the debilitating disease:
That's right, cellular death of the bone. This is the same ailment which ended both the football and baseball careers of Bo Jackson, the two-sport superstar who played for the NFL's Oakland Raiders and three different MLB baseball clubs during the late-1980's and early 1990's.
"Cellular death of bone components due to interruption of the blood supply;
the bone structures then collapse, resulting in bone destruction, pain, and loss
of joint function."
Emery went through the delicate surgical procedure of removing dead bone from the joint, then instead of a hip replacement -- which is often the next step -- underwent the harvesting of healthy bone from his fibula, and the grafting of it in place of where the dead bone was removed.
The goaltender was expected to have difficulty just walking, let alone holding out any hope of ever again returning to an NHL crease.
After spending a month in bed in which he endured excruciating pain, Emery began a grueling rehabilitation with ex-Toronto Maple Leafs' trainer Matt Nichol in an attempt to defy the odds and play hockey again.
"It was kind of tedious and boring at the start," Emery told The Canadian Press late last January. "He (Nichol) wasn't as optimistic as I was which was good because it helped keep things in perspective."
Following strenuous on-ice workouts, he signed a two-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2011. Emery was then sent to the Syracuse Crunch, Anaheim's AHL affiliate. Emery dominated, posting a 4-1-0 record, with a skimpy 1.98 GAA and phenomenal .943 save percentage.
With starter Jonas Hiller battling concussion-like symptoms and Dan Ellis' inconsistency, Emery was recalled by the Ducks. He was excellent down the stretch, recording a 7-2-0 mark, with a 2.28 GAA and .926 save percentage, in helping Anaheim make the postseason.
Even though Emery finished the first round six-game loss to the Nashville Predators with a 2-3 record, Anaheim likely wouldn't have even made the postseason dance without his contributions.
For the dedication and perserverance associated with making his incredible comeback against all odds, Emery, along with eventual winner Ian Laperriere and Daymond Langkow, was a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy at the 2011 NHL Awards.
This past summer, Emery again found himself in the position of being an unrestricted free agent.
With Marty Turco having been replaced by Corey Crawford as the club's starting goalie last season -- and Crawford subsequently signing a contract extension to remain in the Windy City for another three years -- the Blackhawks found themselves in need of a backup. Emery was invited to training camp on a tryout basis, and he may the most of the opportunity, as the Hamilton, Ontario-native was inked to a one-year, $600,000 pact.
Seeing action in just two games in October (2-0-0) and four in November (1-1-1), Emery would need to shake off the rust in early-December.
As Chicago's uneven results were mounting, Crawford had yielded four goals or more on four different occasions in a two week period from November 18th through December 2nd.
Head coach Joel Quenneville started Emery in St. Louis and was rewarded with a 5-2 victory over the Blues. Crawford was given the start against the Phoenix Coyotes at home two nights later, but was pulled in favor of Emery early in the second period after allowing a goal that put the Blackhawks down, 3-0. Emery shut down the Coyotes the rest of the way, stopping all 11 shots, as Chicago rallied to tie the contest and send it to overtime. Even though they eventually fell in a shootout, Emery had helped the club to pick up a valuable point in the standings.
Quenneville obviously took notice, and Emery started the ensuing six games. Included in the run was a 31-save performance against the New York Islanders and a sparkling 35-save effort against the San Jose Sharks, with both contests ending as 3-2 overtime victories for the Blackhawks.
"There are always plans, but when a goalie gets a chance to get the net you don't disrupt it, you let him go," Quenneville told ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers last week. "You give him some confidence by putting him back in the net. He's giving us what we're looking for. At the same time Crawford is working on his game anticipating a chance to get back in. It's a healthy situation, but Ray is playing well, deserves to keep going."
He once again resembled the confident netminder that carried the Senators to the Finals in the spring of 2007, winning the first five of the stretch before dropping a tough, one-goal decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.
Crawford got the call the next night, which was not surprising after the physicality of the battle in Pittsburgh.
It will be interesting to see which goalie Quenneville decides to come back with when Chicago resumes their schedule Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a four-day Christmas break, the Blackhawks will continue with the last four contests in the current five-game homestand.
While there is no doubt that Chicago would like to get Crawford into a groove, Emery is proving it's more of a 'Number One' and 'Number One (A)' situation with the two in the 'Hawks goal crease.
That says a lot about Emery's persistence and perserverance. Not only is he walking just fine, he's holding up pretty well during the grind of playing one of the toughest positions in all of professional sports. He not only defied the odds by making the team over the summer, he's also thriving in his new surroundings.
"It's nice to play consistently and contribute when I get the chance," Emery said last week in the ESPNChicago.com article.
After everything he went through beginning in the winter of 2010, it really is a miracle that he's even playing at all.
His story still has many chapters remaining to be authored, but it appears that Chicago may just end up being the spot where Ray Emery makes his lasting mark, and leaves his ultimate NHL legacy.
Photo credit: Getty Images