The money that the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers were offering free agent Denis Hamel last summer was identical: If he made the NHL club in 2003-04, he would be paid $500,000; if he played in the minors, where he had spent all but 130 games of his six-year pro career, his salary would be $75,000. On the one hand, the Senators were Stanley Cup contenders, but breaking into their lineup would be a dizzying prospect for a 26-year-old left wing who hadn't played in one NHL postseason game. On the other hand, the youthful Panthers didn't appear to have playoff potential, but they represented a better chance for a plugger with decent hands to get off the buses and into six figures.
The deciding factor for Hamel was the chance to play on the same team with Ray Emery, a 21-year-old goalie for Ottawa's American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. "I had to talk to him," Hamel says of wanting to make amends for an incident last season. "It wasn't something I wanted to live with all my life."
Hamel had spoken to Emery only once before, on Dec. 14, 2002, although it was hardly face-to-face. Hamel, then with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, was behind the goalie's crease. Emery recalls Hamel saying, "We're going to light you up, you f———nigger," but concedes he might be paraphrasing because only the word seared itself into his memory. Hamel doesn't recall the exact words either.
Emery, a prize prospect who was born to a white mother and a black father, told only a few teammates about the slur, but Hamel's words ate at him. The two players did not have contact again until their teams next met, on March 5, 2003. As the game ended, Emery went against his upbringing—his mother, Sharlene, had constantly told Ray to ignore people who called him names—and jumped Hamel from behind. For the mugging Emery, who had been suspended six games earlier in the season for firing the puck at a referee, earned a three-game ban. Also, Ottawa asked him to take anger-management counseling.
Hamel, who initially denied making a racist comment, got off with a guilty conscience. But a couple of days after the brawl he phoned Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, a former apartment mate in Rochester who is black. Hamel began, "I don't know if you heard, but...," and then told his story, admitting that he had made the racist remark. Grand-Pierre laughed. "He knows that's not my style," Hamel says. "He told me not to worry but to make sure that I talked to Emery the next time I saw him."
On July 6, 2003, Hamel signed with Ottawa. Emery decided he could play alongside Hamel, but he would not seek him out. Emery didn't have to. During Ottawa's first day of informal skating before training camp, Hamel approached Emery and stuck out his hand. Hamel said he was sorry. Emery said, O.K., no problem. They chatted for 15 minutes. They have not discussed the incident since.
Hamel and Emery sit five lockers apart in the dressing room of the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, teammates inching closer to being friends. They have yet to grab a beer together alone, but they have gone out in a group and enjoyed each other's company. Respect and success can sandpaper the roughest of edges—at week's end Hamel was in the top 20 in AHL scoring (20 points) and Emery had a fine 2.37 goals-against average—but it appears they share more than expectations. They have similar personalities.
"We're kind of the same person," Emery says. "I can see he's got a mean streak, and he's one of the hardest workers on the team. I relate to that. And there's nothing I like more than getting under someone's skin."