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Anaheim Ducks goalie Ray Emery (29) can't stop the goal shot by Dallas Stars Alex Goligoski during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. (LM Otero)
Anaheim Ducks goalie Ray Emery (29) can't stop the goal shot by Dallas Stars Alex Goligoski during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. (LM Otero)

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Ray Emery's sudden return to stardom Add to ...

The condition is called avascular necrosis, and it is as bad as it sounds.

No one knows its exact cause, but the disease can be devastating, especially to professional athletes and especially to professional athletes who happen to be National Hockey League goaltenders who rely on their hips to play the modern butterfly style.

Avascular necrosis occurs when normal blood flow to bone matter is interrupted, causing the deterioration and ultimately the death of bone tissue. It is said to have been a factor in the death of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, and in 1994 it ended Bo Jackson's multisport career. Almost 20 years after Jackson underwent hip-replacement surgery to briefly keep his career alive, the usual advice that doctors give professional athletes stricken with the disease is "good luck with the rest of your life."

Ray Emery wanted more. Those who knew Emery in his Ottawa Senators days probably understand that. Emery always wanted more, or so it seemed. Passionate, driven, temperamental, given to errors in judgment on and off the ice, Emery had a spectacular rise (leading the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup final) and an equally spectacular flameout (he was released a year later after signing a three-year, $9.5-million contract). Emery became so much of a bother, a distraction, a pariah, that the Senators were willing to pay him close to $4-million just to go away.

But now he is 28, and a year after enduring a complicated bone graft to treat his avascular necrosis, Emery is suddenly, unexpectedly flying high again.

He is 5-0 for his new team, the Anaheim Ducks, going into Wednesday night's date with the Calgary Flames, one more pivotal game in their hunt for a Western Conference playoff berth. The Ducks took a chance by signing Emery as a free agent in February and he has paid remarkable and immediate dividends for them.

"I was looking for a guy to stop the puck, simple as that," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "It sounds easy to say and easy to do, but not at this level, to come into this situation, with our hockey club still trying to qualify for the playoffs.

"Really, all he's done is battled. He's battled to stop the puck. He's competed. He's shown a true professional attitude toward his preparation, day in and day out. Right now, he's been a godsend for our hockey club."

A godsend because the Ducks had lost their No. 1 goaltender, Jonas Hiller, to vertigo soon after the all-star break and were in a bind about what to do between the pipes. They traded with the Tampa Bay Lightning for Dan Ellis, who also won six games for them, but Emery has the hot hand now and the Ducks plan to ride it for as long as they can.

"It was a long period of time and I had to take it step by step," Emery said during a brief interview prior to his start against the Flames Wednesday night. "It seems drawn out. I don't know if a year is quick for any injury. I'm just glad to be here, you know?"

Few know Emery better than John Paddock, the Philadelphia Flyers' assistant general manager, who coached him with the Senators' American Hockey League team in Binghamton, N.Y., then in Ottawa, and then crossed paths with him again last year when, partly on his recommendation, the Flyers signed Emery coming out of a one-year exile in Russia's Continental Hockey League.

"Definitely, I'm cheering for him," said Paddock, who thought that Emery's competitive streak served him well during the surgery and the often difficult and tedious rehabilitation that followed. In the operation, bone from Emery's lower leg was inserted into the ball of his hip, which required him to spend the first month of his recovery in bed.

From there, he gingerly graduated to crutches. Once he was able to walk on his own, he started a program that included strength training, plus yoga and ballet to enhance balance.

"You play our sport, I guess everybody's competitive, some more than others and some show it more than others," Paddock said. "He's competitive and he shows it. How he's approaching this? Maybe he's just going to prove that he can beat it. He's that kind of driven personality."

Emery will acknowledge that he's matured in the past two years and it is a sentiment echoed by his teammates.

"Whatever everybody said about him, it's all false," Ducks left winger Corey Perry said. "He's just come in and worked really hard. He's really been taken in, in this dressing room."

Emery doesn't want to be just a flash in the pan. He says he is in it for the long haul, intent on forging a second phase in his NHL career.

"It's not a five-game goal," he said. "It's not an end-of-the-season goal. You've got to take it day-by-day and make those short-term goals happen, and hopefully it will last for a while."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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