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Musick: ‘Little steps’ led to Emery’s big comeback

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(AP file photo)
Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery had hip surgery in 2010.

CHICAGO – The praise became a familiar refrain for Sharlene Emery.

To a mother, it was like hearing the best kind of echo. Every school year, she would hear a similar message from a different teacher about her young son, Ray.

“The teachers would tell me he could do anything,” Sharlene Emery said last week from her home in Ontario. “He could do anything, he could be anything. Because physically, he was very athletic, and mentally, he was always ahead of the class.”

But he couldn’t actually do anything, of course. No one can.

For instance, no one had returned to the NHL after surgery to save a collapsing hip.

At least, that is, no one until Ray Emery.

These days, Emery is one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL. He is 15-1-0 with a 1.90 goals-against average, and he is a big reason the Blackhawks lead the NHL in points with eight games remaining in the regular season.

At this pace, the Hawks could return to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2010. Emery might be the starting goaltender for the playoffs, or he might be on the bench, one coaching decision away from skating into the brightest spotlight in hockey.

The Hawks were in that spotlight not so long ago.

But while Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the Hawks took turns hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup above their heads, Emery was confined to a hospital bed in a lakeside cottage south of Barry, Ontario. Technically, he was on the Philadelphia Flyers, but he watched the playoffs on TV. He watched a lot of things on TV.

“I’d hit the button [on my bed] and go up in the morning and watch some TV,” Emery said. “I had the laptop there every once in awhile. That was it.”

The Hawks’ journey went like this: Regular season – playoffs – championship – parade.

Emery’s journey went like this: Surgery – hospital bed – wheelchair – crutches – walking.

Now, Emery and the Hawks are together. They’re not walking. They’re sprinting.

Which is remarkable.

In the spring of 2010, Emery was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his right hip, a condition that eats away at the bone. It was the same condition that ended Bo Jackson’s career, although Jackson did not find out until it was too late.

Emery’s hip had not fully collapsed when he was diagnosed, but it was on its way.

Surgery brought no guarantees. Emery underwent about a six-hour procedure on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., to remove a dead bone from his hip and replace it with a healthy bone from the middle section of his fibula.

After the bone graft was complete, Emery headed to his parents’ house in Cayuga, Ontario. It was a one-floor, open-concept house, which made it easy to move some furniture and set him up in the living room.

Sharlene Emery stayed home from work to care for her son. She was a personal support worker at a nursing home, so she was used to caring for people and helping them with their daily needs. She and Paul Emery monitored Ray’s medication, helped to change his bandages and told him to stay positive.

No one knew whether Ray would play hockey again. They hoped he could walk OK. Doctors spoke in “ifs” and “maybes” and “buts” while Ray fought to get healthy.

“They say childbirth is one of the worst pains,” said Sharlene, mother of three boys – Ray, Andrew and Nicholas. “Well, you know what, I’ve been through that.

“But to see Ray in that much pain? No sleep. Your muscles are torn apart. They’re putting in a new bone. That’s all got to be attached. That’s just invasive.”

Ever the caring mother, Sharlene Emery advised her son to be open to a future that did not include hockey. If he couldn’t play again, that would be OK, she told him. Who knew what doors might open for him personally and professionally?

Ray appreciated the advice, but all along, he was determined to return. He had played hockey since age 4, when Paul Emery enrolled him at his company’s hockey school. Ray started as a defenseman before his competitiveness prompted a change.

“He played in Cayuga, and the goalie wasn’t that great,” Paul Emery said. “He was getting tired of losing, so he decided to be in net for a while. And that was it.”

But Ray’s hip injury could have been it, for good.

Like most athletes, Emery is understated. He credits teammates for his great season. He downplays the pain and the hurdles both physical and mental that he had to leap.

“It was a different situation, but it was just a bunch of little steps, you know?” Emery said. “It was painful for about a month. That part was really tough.

“But after that, it was just little steps to get back. Start walking. Try to get on the ice. And then try to play well enough to play pro hockey.”

The Hawks offered him a tryout before the start of last season.

Emery seized the opportunity, and he hasn’t looked back.

“Anything you go through is beneficial if you learn from it,” Emery said. “It’s something that definitely has shaped me one way or another.

“I don’t regret it. If I had the option for it not to happen, I’d rather have it not happen. But it’s something in the past that I can draw from.”

Now, Emery is focused on the future, which is just how he prefers.

The near future will include a playoff run. How long that run lasts is anyone’s guess.

Regardless, Paul and Sharlene plan to be there, cheering for Ray to take his next step.

“It was good to have him home,” Sharlene Emery said. “We were close, but I know it was very hard for him to go through that painful part of it.

“I’m so glad he’s better now. We don’t know how long it’s going to last or anything, but you know what? Let’s just go for the ride for now and see where it ends.”

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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