TORONTO - Standing in a tunnel only 20 feet from NHL ice at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, former Flyers goaltender Ray Emery was so close, yet so far from where he wants to be.
Emery, 28, was diagnosed last March with avascular necrosis, a rare disease that cuts off the blood supply to a particular bone causing the bone tissue to collapse and wither.
Emery, whose AVN was in his hip joint, had an intensive bone graft surgery in April in Durham, N.C. A small bone in his leg was transplanted to his hip in an effort to stimulate and regenerate the area.
In the nearly 8 months since the surgery, which doctors consider successful if the patient simply can walk normally again, Emery has spent time at his cottage in Muskoka, Ontario, reflecting on his topsy-turvy career.
Not skating or spending time with teammates made him appreciate not only how fortunate he was to have a career that carried him to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007 with Ottawa, but also how close he came to being finished. One year in exile in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League paled in comparison with this surgery.
Emery has been rehabbing since September in Toronto with former Leafs trainer Matt Nichol. He finally got on the ice for the first time 5 weeks ago.
"When I stepped on the ice again, it was, like, 'Whoa, I forget how to do this,' " Emery said in an interview with the Daily News. "I feel pretty good. For the first 3 or 4 weeks, I kind of had to feel myself out a little bit. The last 2 weeks have been more to the point where I can actually worry about stopping pucks and more about goaltending, rather than just worrying about protecting my hip."
Emery said his leg needed a while to readjust to missing a bone, and he is retraining his body to go into the butterfly position after not being able to do it without pain when he last appeared in an NHL game for the Flyers on Feb. 1 in Calgary.
"The hip was the main concern," Emery said. "The doctor said the graft has healed. There's no more deterioration in there, and, basically, I can do whatever I want with it and not damage his surgery. Now I'm just concerned about getting good at hockey again.
"I've got to get to the point where I was before, but I need to do it differently, because where I was before wasn't working. That's why I hurt myself, because I wasn't solid enough in that area, and I was compensating for it elsewhere."
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren has followed Emery's progress. Emery signed with the Flyers as a surprise free agent two summers ago. He was 16-11-1 with a 2.64 goals against average and .905 save percentage with the Flyers.
"He played well for us," Holmgren said. "It's really an unfortunate situation for him. I've always liked Ray, and I think he did a good job for us. I know he's trying really hard to get back, so we'll see where it takes him."
No player in NHL history has ever returned from a similar ordeal. Former two-sport star Bo Jackson suffered from AVN - and it ended his careers in football and baseball in the early 1990s. Emery learned through research that the quickest any athlete ever recovered was a high school football player who came back after 9 months. He is not far off.
"I definitely have a clear goal in mind: If you don't sign with a team before the [Feb. 28, 2011] trade deadline, you can't play with them in the playoffs," Emery said. "And I have an insurance package where I can play 20 games and see if it [feels] well enough to my liking. But if it's not good by [February], I think I will probably wait until September to start up with everyone else."
Holmgren doesn't think an NHL team will take a stab at signing Emery without having him tested in the minors.
"If Ray is looking for a place to play, on a tryout or something like that, we will keep an eye out for him," Holmgren said. "We'll help him in any way we can, even if it's one of our own minor league teams."
Standing near the Flyers' locker room Thursday night, after the Flyers topped the Maple Leafs, Emery caught up with his former teammates - many of whom he keeps in close contact. He also visited the Flyers' hotel in Toronto before the game after his rehab session. In many ways, Emery was the forgotten man during the Flyers' run to the finals last June.
"Sometimes, in the gym, I feel like I'm by myself," Emery said.
He might not be that far off from joining them on the ice - even if it's as an opponent. It wouldn't be the first time his career has rebounded.
"It's exciting," Emery said. "I want to get ready to the point where if you see me, you'll want me. I'm not too worried about teams giving me a shot. I'll go wherever I can to play. I'll go to the American [Hockey] League, I'll go to the ECHL, I'll go wherever. I just want to be confident in my body that I can do it for a long time."
Defenseman Matt Walker was sent to AHL Adirondack yesterday on a conditioning assignment. Michael Leighton also made his third rehab start in goal for the Phantoms last night in Syracuse, recording 29 saves in a 5-2 victory . . . It's been almost a year (Dec. 14) since the Flyers' last regular-season win in Boston. The Flyers have not beaten the Bruins in three straight tries (0-2-1).
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