AS ROLE MODELS go, he seems a curious choice. The words “Anger is a gift” are etched in black ink along his right arm. He paid for the tattoo with money he won on a bet with a teammate that he wouldn’t eat a cockroach off the locker room floor. By his own estimate, he’s had at least 30 run-ins with the police. He’s been described as lazy, entitled and immature. Yet here is Ray Emery, on a sunny late-summer afternoon, the guest speaker at a youth hockey camp run by his new employers, the Flyers. Emery is surrounded by a pack of kids ranging in age from nine to 16 who are, like, dude, so excited their favorite team’s new goaltender is here to meet them.
Emery’s pretty psyched, too. A year ago, he was in Siberia, literally; after he became such a distraction that his last NHL team paid him to go away, the only league that would take him was in Russia. Today he’s in Northeast Philadelphia, wearing an orange jersey, eager to make good on the $1.5 million one-year contract he signed with the Flyers in June. Emery is introduced, and the campers bang their sticks on the ice, hockey’s version of a round of applause. Perhaps the youngsters will ask him about playing in the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. How he’s dealt with adversity. What it’s like to hang with Snoop Dogg, since any Google search will show pics of them chilling together backstage. Hey kids, any questions for Mr. Emery?
Kid 1: Why do you like to fight?
Emery: I don’t know. I like boxing, and this is one sport where fighting’s part of the game.
Kid 2: How many fights have you been in?
Coach: Let’s pass over the fighting questions, all right?
Kid 2: How many fights have you won?
The fact that young boys want to know more about ass-kicking than the nuances of Emery’s netminding isn’t surprising. Though the 27-year-old has thrown down with just about everyone on the ice — teammates, tough guys, other -goaltenders — he insists his reputation as a hothead is overblown. YouTube and the Canadian media beg to differ.
It doesn’t help that in hockey, where oversize personalities are rare, Emery is like the Terrell Owens of the NHL, immensely talented but a controversy magnet. He’s also got a little Allen Iverson in him, with the bad-boy tats, an aversion to practice, and lingering questions about his ability to be a team player. Those issues didn’t loom so large when he was schlepping around Moscow. This year, though, the Flyers are considered a favorite to win a championship. Across the street from the Wachovia Center, Michael Vick stands on the sidelines and occasionally gets his wildcat formation on. Emery, the other second-chance story in Philadelphia sports, can’t hide on the bench. If he doesn’t stop enough pucks, the Flyers won’t need to reserve Broad Street in June. As for the biggest save he can make? That’s easy. It’s his own career — because for Emery, this second chance is also his last.