Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Emery a Goalie with a Pedigree -- and Fighting to Regain It

By Larry Wigge

Ray Emery has the pedigree that the Chicago Black Hawks are looking for in goal. He's competitive. He's got fire and passion. And, most of all, he's a fighter.

The Cayuga, Ont., native, came within three victories of a Stanley Cup for the Ottawa Senators against the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.

There's the pedigree. 

But five seasons and four teams later, there he stands. Following a season with Mytischi in Russia -- the only place he had to play after being released by the Senators after the 2007-08 season -- he also had hip surgery in 2010. Yet, he has continued to work his way back. He joined the Blackhawks in training camp and he not only made their team. He keeps getting chances to start for a team that went the Stanley Cup finals two short years ago.

"I have no clue," said the 29-year-old goaltender. "It was my only option -- to stick with the Blackhawks and see where it would take."

Once you've achieved the No. 1 job ... you don't want to give it up -- even if you've consider Corey Crawford's backup.

Emery has ridden to the rescue, replacing Crawford in mid-game it's a given he get his chance to play for the Hawks in the playoffs.

"Every game he's been solid," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's got a history of being a good goalie in our league. It helped with the decision at the beginning. He's fit in nicely with our team and was absorbing some responsibilities with an early stretch of playing time. Now it's a big time for us and he's stepping forward."

The 6-2, 196-pound goalie has posted a record of 14-8-2, with a 2.58 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 28 appearances in early March.

Included in his latest hot stretch is a 2-1 victory in Ottawa.

"It feels great," Emery said. "We're in a battle and we know they are, too. We needed that one, especially our last few games, we've had a tough time.

"It's special to come back, and I have a lot of friends here. But ... I was just trying to focus on the game."

It's always in the past with Emery. There is a history with Ray.

Some can't overlook it.

Hide behind his mask? Not Raymond Robert Emery.

Like the time when Emery ate a cockroach to win a $500 bet from Daniel Alfredsson. Not when he invited photographers on a tattoo excursion. Or dyed his hair blonde to try to be like controversial boxer Mike Tyson.

His nickname in Razor with a tatoo on his arms that reads, "Anger is a Gift."

Just another weird goaltender? Not even close. 

"Am I an angry man? Not at all," Emery explained during his playoff run. "I think I'm a pretty easy guy to talk to and pretty loose around people in general. It's just in competitive situations. That’s when I kind of flip that switch and all I want to do is win."

You mean you snap? 

"I'd say its the competitive fire coming out in me, the focus," Emery said, grinning after he heard the words he had just uttered. "I've kind of learned to tone it down a bit. But no way do I want to lose my competitive edge ... not playing without emotion."

Emery still is fighting -- like he has done all his life -- only now it's for respect.

Forget the fact that he was just a fourth-round draft choice, 99th overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

"I've never doubted myself," Emery told me. "If there's something to compete for I'm fine, it doesn't matter what it is. Whether it's summer time and I'm golfing or hockey or whatever."

"Above all the rest, Ray Emery is a winner," said Senators teammate Jason Spezza, who roomed with Emery for part of his three-year apprenticeship with Binghamton of the American Hockey League. "He's a big-game guy. He loves the challenge." 

Some say Ray Emery is an NHL who refuses to fit in. But he's not a rebel. This is a young man who, before he had some goaltending success, thought he might become an architect. But those competitive juices and that anger at losing consumed the son of Paul and Sharlene Emery.

The bottom line? He's a winner. The jist of every story comes back to everything but the kick-saves-and-a-beauty.

"Even when I was young ... like grade 7 and 8 ... I was a little different," Emery laughed. "I loved music, still do, and I’d be rockin in silk shirts. Stuff like that."

I remember Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy once commenting on how he heard former Dodgers great righthander Orel Hershiser saying how he would get into his starts on the mound by humming hymns all throughout the game. Hershiser did it to take his mind off other things, to help him focus on what was at hand.

Welcome the latest athlete with a song in his heart and head ... Ray Emery.

"I've got kind of an eclectic taste in music," he said. "My mom got me started on country music and, believe it or not, my dad taught me about hard rock sounds like Def Leppard and Metallica. And my buddies were into rap. So, I guess you can say I never know what kind of mood I'm in when I step into the goal crease.

"You know how you get a song stuck in your head? Well, I kind of put a song in my head and take it from there. Nuts, huh?"

Emery says he can even be overheard at times humming a tune to himself ... if you get close enough to him in goal without facing a couple of rights or lefts to the chops.

Why does it always come back to boxing? Well, that’s another of those interesting tidbits you learn about Emery. He’s a boxing fan. He watches classic championships bouts and -- Jack Johnson, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson or George Chuvalo.

Emery, a young black man playing in a white man's sport, may feel the need to express himself as an individual, and perhaps the lone athletic endeavor more isolated than playing goaltender is boxing.

Although hockey is a team sport, the goalie often stands alone under the spotlight and many times must do the job himself. A prizefighter comes out of his corner unaided and with no place to hide. 

Emery, a young black man playing in a sport controlled by white businessmen, has constantly felt the need to express himself as an individual, and perhaps the lone athletic endeavor more isolated than playing goaltender is boxing.

Although hockey is a team sport, the goalie often stands alone under the spotlight and many times must do the job himself. A prizefighter comes out of his corner unaided and with no place to hide.

What we've got here is a goaltender who seems to be able to rise to the occasion, no matter what the odds, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Said Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, "It's interesting that Ray is facing J.S. Giguere in the finals. I was GM in Anaheim in 2003 when Jiggy sort of came from nowhere in the playoffs against Detroit and then couldn't lose and became kind of a folk hero along the way.

"To me, Ray is in that same sort of position. When you're a young player going through the first time you're always going to be questioned. But Ray handles pressure in all situations well. I'm confident he'll get the respect he deserves.

"We all know what he’s done for this hockey club."

Ray Emery is back at it. And he's challenging himself to be back in the Stanley Cup finals.

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