Emery’s unlikely comeback story could lead to No. 1 goaltending job in Chicago

The sports world embraces comeback stories as much as it likes to create heroes and villains.

The sports world embraces comeback stories as much as it likes to create heroes and villains.

Four years after Ray Emery was harshly swept out of the Ottawa Senators organization with a $2.25 million buyout cheque in his back pocket – the Senators are paying the final $562,500 installment of his goodbye package this season – he returned to Scotiabank Place and there was little animosity.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know,” a soft-spoken Emery said when asked how he believed he would be treated by Senators faithful before Friday’s game. “But they say that getting booed on the road is like getting cheered at home, so we’ll see how it goes.”

As it turns out, the reaction was rather mild – a few boos, a couple of cheers when he was announced as Chicago’s starter — but Emery already had extensive experience on both sides of the love/hate meter.

“It’s very tough to play in Ottawa for a goalie,” Emery acknowledged. “I think it can work both ways. If you do well, they will embrace you, even more so than in another market, but if you have just a small, tough stretch, it’s going to be amplified a lot more. It goes both ways, where you get a lot more attention. They’ll like you a lot more if you play well and the opposite is true, it becomes tough, especially for a position like goalie.”

For those late to the party, here’s the Coles Notes version of his rise and fall in Ottawa.

Emery inherited the number one job late in the 2005-06 season after Dominik Hasek’s failure to recover from a groin injury he suffered at the Olympics. The following season, Emery outplayed high-profile free agent signing Martin Gerber to earn the starting job and carried the Senators all the way to the 2007 Stanley Cup final against Anaheim. Along the way, his larger than life personality – a song about Emery got extensive radio airplay — and his off-ice antics were overlooked because of his success.

Yet once Emery landed a three-year contract the following summer, he was slow to recover from a wrist injury, lost a public relations fight following a minor traffic accident with a fan, didn’t play well, missed practice several times, fought with a teammate once and generally made life miserable for former coach John Paddock.

Gerber took over the net, and it was inevitable that Emery would be bought out of his contract.

From there, he went to Russia for a season and signed with Philadelphia in 2009-10. He started well with the Flyers, but suffered a career-threatening hip injury. He spent more than a year away from the game, undergoing an arduous recovery following a controversial surgery, before finally signing with Anaheim in February, 2001. The physical recovery was accompanied by a re-evaluation of his life and he has acknowledged taking things for granted during his Senators years.

This year, he earned the back-up job with Chicago and due to recent shaky play by number one Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, is receiving his chance to carry the load.

It is an unlikely comeback, to be sure.

Emery didn’t say much about all that on Friday, but he didn’t say the wrong thing, either. He neatly deflected away a personal question about how much he has changed and grown up, saying that the night wasn’t about him, but about his team’s attempt to win a game.

“Everyone changes throughout their life, throughout their career, as you get older. I’m not really thinking about that right now. I’m more focussed on tonight’s game. That’s the main thing.”

There could be another pot of gold awaiting him. If Emery performs well down the stretch, he has a chance to once again shine in the playoffs.

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