- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Ray Emery leaned forward on the locker room bench, began removing his goaltender pads, and breathed a satisfied sigh of relief. After more than a year of doubts about his health, he was back between the pipes.

And it felt so very good.

“It’s an understatement to say that I’m happy to be here,” said Emery, who was signed as a free agent three weeks ago by the Anaheim Ducks and assigned to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. “I’m kind of rusty, but glad to be here. I just want to make the most of it, help whatever team I’m on.”

That team is Anaheim now. After three starts in five days for the Crunch, Emery, who underwent hip surgery in April, was called up by the Ducks on Wednesday.

Pretty heady stuff for a guy who went from Stanley Cup finals goalie to an afterthought in the blink of an eye.

Emery’s NHL career came to a sudden halt last season with the Philadelphia Flyers. He wasn’t playing well and was pulled against the Washington Capitals after allowing five goals. Tests and an MRI showed a tear in his abdominal wall, and the condition had deteriorated to the point where surgery was the only option.

It was more than a tear, though. A second look at the MRI revealed some abnormalities on the right side of the femoral head. Emery was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hip, the same bone disorder that curtailed Bo Jackson’s athletic career.

Emery knows he’s a lucky man. The disease normally progresses to joint destruction, requiring total hip replacement, and the collapse of the femoral head usually occurs within two years after developing hip pain.

“I didn’t really experience any soreness with it, but it was close to collapsing. Obviously, you’ve got to stop that,” Emery said. “Having news like that was kind of an eye opener. But I’m pretty good when that type of problem approaches. I just kind of figure out the next step.”

The next step was a bone graft. Doctors took 13 centimeters of the fibula in his right leg, drilled a hole into the femoral head, and inserted the healthy bone. The operation halted the deterioration, and Emery refocused on hockey. He became an unrestricted free agent last July, and in August was given the OK to begin the rehabilitation process.

“The rehab was long. It wasn’t crazy and intense everyday, but it was everyday, a couple of times a day, very regimented,” Emery said. “It wasn’t easy, but at the same time it wasn’t like I was in crazy pain everyday. I was given a plan and I stuck to it.”

By November, he was able to drop into the butterfly position. And two months ago, he began working out three or four times a week, skating primarily with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.

The Ducks were willing to take a chance on the combustible Emery because Jonas Hiller has been sidelined by a recurrence of dizziness and fatigue and backup Curtis McElhinney was shaky, at best. The St. Louis Blues beat McElhinney for two goals in seven seconds on Saturday.

Emery signed with Anaheim on Feb. 7. He reported to Syracuse a week later, and was welcomed with open arms.

“It’s good to see him back,” Crunch winger David Laliberte said. “He was really professional. He came to the rink and was really focused.”

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