Five years ago, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery received what was supposed to be a hockey death sentence. He was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his right hip. Not only was his hockey career over, walking normally again was in question.
Today, as Emery prepares for a game against the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports), he has a Stanley Cup ring (won with the Blackhawks), is in the second season of his second stint with the Flyers, and has no intention of putting his pads away any time soon.
Emery said early in the 2009-10 season with the Flyers, he felt pain in his hip, groin and pelvis. Surgery in December 2009 to repair torn abdominal muscles kept him out six weeks. But on Feb. 1, 2010 in a game at the Calgary Flames, the pain returned worse.
"That game in Calgary I said, 'Something's not right,'" Emery said. "Feels like my leg is going to fall off."
Further examination revealed Emery had avascular necrosis, a condition in which a portion of the bone dies from lack of blood flow. In Emery's case, the ball at the top of his right hip had completely deteriorated.
"I didn't know what it was," Emery said. "They explained it to me and explained how it progressed. It was upsetting."
Emery was looking at hockey potentially being taken away from him for a second time. After the 2007-08 season, the Ottawa Senators bought out Emery's contract. With no interest from NHL teams, the only place he could find a job was with Atlant Mytishchi in the Kontinental Hockey League. The goalie-desperate Flyers brought him back to the NHL in June 2009.
The reunion was going well until that night in Calgary. While the Flyers were starting their unexpected run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, Emery was traveling from doctor to doctor, researching possible solutions to his career-threatening hip problem.
He found what he believed was the best option at Duke Medical Center in North Carolina, and in April 2010, Dr. David Ruch performed a procedure that involved graphing a portion of Emery's fibula to his right hip. Though the surgery was deemed a success, no one was sure if Emery would be able to play again.
Months after the surgery, Emery shared with ESPN.com a conversation he had with Ruch.
"I told him that I could care less if I can't walk in five years, but I just want to play hockey for five years," Emery said.
Five years later, Emery admits that statement mostly was wishful thinking.
"I definitely was hoping to play," he said. "That's why I chose to get what I got done, done. Didn't know what would happen, but I thought it would give me the best chance of coming back."
Emery said the early days of recovery were brutal. He spent five days at Duke and three weeks at home in a specialized hospital bed. While the hockey world went on without him, Emery had time to focus on what he really wanted.
"It's different being away from the game for a full year like I was," Emery said. "Even when I went to Russia, I really enjoyed it and I realized that I didn't think I was going to enjoy it. So I realized hockey was a big part of my life and how much of a community it is, and how much I'm part of the game even though I'm not even on the ice."
Emery was cleared to start rehabilitating in September, and after a month of gym work, he was allowed on the ice.
"I didn't have very many setbacks," he said. "It was slow progression but it was always progression. … There was always progress being made or trying to find ways to make things work. The hardest problem I had wasn't in my hip. It was where they took the graph from, they took my fibula out. It's hard to stabilize down there. I was working on balance down there."
Emery had no assurances the procedure or rehab would allow him to play hockey again. Even if it did, it took a team willing to take a chance on a goalie coming back from an injury that none ever had come back from.
The Anaheim Ducks took a shot, signing Emery to a two-way contract Feb. 7, 2011. He spent a month with Syracuse of the American Hockey League and was recalled in early March.
Then, on March 13, 2011, 13 months after feeling like his right leg was going to fall off and 11 months after having an operation no knew would work or not, Emery skated in an NHL game. He made nine saves in 17:05 of ice time in relief of Dan Ellis and said it felt like he was making his NHL debut again.
"There's a lot of questions after you have a procedure like that," Emery said. "A lot of questions on my part too. You don't really know how you're going to be able to stack up."
Emery stacked up fine, going 7-2-0 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 10 games with the Ducks, and then started five of their six games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Goalie - PHI
GAA: 3.15 | SVP: .892
A free agent in the summer of 2011, the only job offer Emery received was an invitation to training camp with the Blackhawks. He did well enough to earn a one-year contract to back up Corey Crawford
; that turned into a second one-year contract for 2012-13, a season Emery never will forget.
Emery became the first goaltender to start a season 12-0-0. He finished the regular season 17-1-0 with three shutouts in 21 games, and Emery and Crawford shared the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the regular season. He capped the season by taking the Stanley Cup for a victory lap.
Emery had been the 24-year-old starter for the Senators in 2007, when he helped them reach the Cup Final. Six years and many bumps in the road later, Emery said he was able to appreciate winning more in 2013.
"It's special no matter what time in your career you win it no matter what you've been through," Emery said. "It's something as a kid you dream of. But especially after going through that time period where I might not have been able to play, to go through an experience like that, it is pretty cool."
Emery returned to Philadelphia in the summer of 2013 and has formed a strong partnership with No. 1 goalie Steve Mason.
"He's extremely supportive and I try to be the same towards him," Mason said. "I enjoy working with him. Obviously goaltenders, we're kind of an island by ourselves. He's somebody that I enjoy having here."
This season hasn't gone smoothly for the Flyers or Emery, who is 10-10-6 with a 3.15 GAA in 29 games. He's not the player he was pre-surgery, but Emery said any changes to his style have come from the maturity and knowledge gained through 12 professional seasons, not because he's restricted in any way because of his hip.
"It's different just because your game evolves, not different physically like I can't do this or don't do that," he said. "You just … there's always ways that your game is progression."
Where Emery progresses next is unclear. He's 32 years old and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
He defied the odds five years ago, and said he can see himself still playing in five more years.
"You don't look back that much," Emery said. "It's what's next. I definitely appreciate it every day."