(Voorhees, NJ) - I had planned to begin this column with “Say hello to The Fighting Goaltender. No, Ron Hextall is not making a comeback. `KO’ Ray Emery is the new goaltender in town.”
But after attending the press conference where Emery was introduced as the Flyers’ new goaltender, I decided on another approach. The reason: Emery admitted he made mistakes when he was with the Ottawa Senators. Referring to the season after he led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, Emery said, “I didn’t have a great work ethic at the start of the year. I came into camp out of shape and wasn’t willing to work (to get in shape).”
Flyers coach John Stevens coached against Emery when he was with the American Hockey League’s Binghamton entry.
“The one thing that impressed me the most is that he was willing to take responsibility for what happened (in Ottawa),” Stevens said. “If he wasn’t going to do that, I’d be a lot more concerned about bringing him in here.
“I think he’s a bona fide No. 1 goalie in the league. He’s taken a team to the finals. He’s 26 years old. The prime of his career lies in front of him.”
While he was with Ottawa, Emery was known for stopping shots, battling with teammates and pursuing the Canadian record for collecting speeding tickets.
The 6-2, 196-pound Emery has convinced Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, Peter Luukko, the president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor, and chairman Ed Snider that he is more mature.
“I know this is the last chance for me,” Emery said. “If things don’t go well here, there’s no reason for anyone to give me another shot. I’m coming back to a Stanley Cup-contending team. Any goalie in the league would love to play here.”
Riding the wave of optimism in the room at the Skate Zone, Luukko said, “Where there is perceived risk, a lot of times there is great opportunity. Ray’s spent a lot of time with Paul, Mr. Snider and myself. He had a great career through Ottawa, and then he hit a bump in the road. That bump in the road is a great opportunity for the Flyers.”
Said Holmgren: “I root for guys who have had difficulties. Ray achieved a certain success in Ottawa, and then he forgot his roots. The league is so competitive now that if you fall asleep at the wheel with your conditioning and work habits, you’re going to find yourself in trouble.”
Several times during the press conference, Emery, stylishly attired in a light gray striped suit, white shirt and gray tie, lit up the room with his smile. Referring to his playing the past season in Russia, Emery said, “I only had two penalty minutes, and that was for shooting the puck over the side. I’ve been pretty calm.”
Talking about playing for the Flyers, Emery said, “It’s a great city and the fans are even better. It’s the toughest place [to play] as an opponent. The fans are wild here. I love that. That’s the way it should be.”
Emery’s Russian experience was positive, but he’s content seeing that sprawling nation in his rear view mirror.
“Russia was a better experience than I thought it would be,” he said. “I was nervous going there. I’d heard some good things and I (also) heard some negatives. The hockey wasn’t up to par with the NHL, but it was competitive hockey.
“I worked on different parts of my game. Russians like to play around with the puck. They like to pass it into the net. I had to be sharp from side to side. It was (also) great for me because it got me away from (the media glare). I definitely missed the NHL and a competitive game every night.”
It’s a great city and the fans are even better. It’s the toughest place [to play] as an opponent. The fans are wild here. I love that. That’s the way it should be.” - Ray Emery
Holmgren believes that Emery is the type of goaltender suited to today’s NHL. Listing Emery’s attributes, Holmgren cited “his size, athletic ability and he’s competitive. (In the Stanley Cup finals) the action around the front of the net sometimes looks like an NFL line of scrimmage. The goalie has to fight for loose pucks in front of the net.”
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Signing Emery means it’s time to say goodbye to Marty Biron. Retaining Biron was an option for Holmgren, but Biron is seeking a contract more than double what Emery will earn. I think Flyers fans will fondly remember Biron: he was steady, had stretches of brilliance and was a reliable playoff goalie. Will Emery be better? We’ll find out quickly.
Responding to questions about what a gamble it is to sign Emery to a one-year contract, worth an estimated $1.5 million according to several reports, Holmgren insisted he doesn’t view it as a gamble. If Emery plays well, the Flyers have a top goaltender for several years. Holmgren can use the money he is saving on Emery to pursue a high-level defenseman.
If Emery doesn’t work out with the Flyers, the team didn’t break the bank on him and Holmgren will begin another search for a top goaltender. Perhaps the next Flyers goalie will be one of their own.
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Holmgren knows the Flyers need to develop a goaltender. The late Pelle Lindbergh, Ron Hextall and Antero Niittymaki are the only goalies in the last few decades that progressed through the Flyers’ farm system.
“We’ve had some success (with goalies),” Holmgren said, “but since (Niittymaki) we’ve stumbled a little bit. It’s very difficult to look at 17-, 18-, 19-year-old goalies and say `He’s the guy.’ You don’t really know with goalies how they’ll turn out five-six years down the road.”
Holmgren said it’s still possible that Niittymaki will return to the Flyers. They’ve signed Johan Backlund from Sweden and the past two years they’ve drafted goalies: Joacim Eriksson last year and Notre Dame’s Brad Phillips in 2007.
“We’re really high on Backlund, but there’s a period of adjustment (for European goalies) because of the way they play,” Holmgren said.
Scott Munroe, the Phantoms’ top goalie last season, is an unrestricted free agent. Holmgren has offered Munroe a contract, but he is listening to other offers.
Until someone else comes along, Emery is the Flyers’ guy. Somehow, I suspect there won’t be many dull moments with him in the nets.Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.