THE HOCKEY world is a generally forgiving place. It is willing to embrace Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet despite his 2007 conviction for conspiracy to promote gambling, and it continues to employ hulking Calgary forward Todd Bertuzzi, even though he pleaded guilty to an on-ice criminal assault of Steve Moore, an '04 attack that fractured the Colorado forward's neck and ended his career. Live and let live, eh? The quality of mercy is not strained, except in the relationship between Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery and the league that now considers him a pariah. ¬∂ Avery did not place a bet, drive drunk, injure anyone or wield a weapon other than a sharp tongue. If scabrous speech were a felony, NHL teams would be forced to skate three-on-three.
So why can't hockey forgive him?
Avery didn't talk himself out of a job, and possibly a career, last month simply because of his unseemly choice of words—which, like almost everything he does, were orchestrated for maximum effect. True, if Avery had simply labeled actress Elisha Cuthbert, who is dating the Flames' Dion Phaneuf, and model Rachel Hunter, engaged to the Kings' Jarret Stoll, as, say, "ex-girlfriends" instead of dipping into his frat-boy lexicon for a gauche and disrespectful phrase ("sloppy seconds," if you haven't heard), then he wouldn't be in hockey purgatory. This season, anyway. Those words were simply the tipping point, earning Avery a lifetime achievement award for bad judgment.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman banned the winger for six games and ordered an anger-management evaluation. The Stars subsequently decided to honor Avery's contract but otherwise sever ties with him. (A good thing: Dallas was 8-11-4 with Avery but 9-5-1, through Sunday, without him.) He had signed with the team in July but in 23 games had already worn out a tepid welcome by offending the sensibilities of his coach, Dave Tippett, his team and its owner, Thomas Hicks.
Even worse than his scripted misogyny, Avery was guilty of hockey's deadliest sin: being a lousy teammate. There can be room for personal agendas in other sports—think Terrell Owens with the Cowboys—but hockey takes a dim view of square pegs in their perfectly rounded holes. The ethos is different. Unlike baseball clubhouses, where players sit facing their stalls, or football locker rooms, where players are segregated by position, a hockey dressing room is designed so all players face toward the center, gazing at one another. Avery did not look at his teammates in Dallas. Between periods he would often sit by himself in the hallway, headphones on, a citizen of Planet Sean. When Avery was in the dressing room, according to Stars veteran Mike Modano, he was often on his phone, discussing a potential book deal or his movie project, a romantic comedy based on the life of the only NHL player to spend his summer as an intern at Vogue. (Avery handled a variety of assignments including assisting on fashion shoots and "guest editing" on mensvogue.com during his time at the magazine last year.)
Avery wore shorts with his sport coats to preseason games because, Modano said, "he didn't feel he could express himself if he dressed the same as everybody [else].... He just seemed unwilling to do what we were all asked to do, on and off the ice. He wanted to march to his own beat." Avery was the iconoclast clown, throwing spitballs at hockey's ways.
His most public transgressions in a seven-year career with the Red Wings, Kings, Rangers and Stars—the verbal swipes at French-Canadian players, a confrontation with an L.A. assistant coach, a profane blowup at an Anaheim broadcaster, the cartoonish harassment of an opposing goalie in the postseason, the obscenities showered on fans in Nashville and Boston—merely add up to a Sean Avery starter kit. "[After each incident] you say, 'Nah, that's not really anything. No big deal,'" says Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who had Avery for 55 games in 2006--07. "But it builds and builds."
Then on the morning of a Dec. 2 game in Calgary against Phaneuf's Flames, Avery made sure a TV camera was rolling, delivered his "sloppy" line ... and crashed.
To his credit, he signed a contract a lot of 20-goal scorers don't [get].
—SCOTT THORNTON, former
THE ONLY thing breaking Avery's fall is a fat wallet. After a season and a half with the Rangers—he had 23 goals and 22 mentions on the New York Post's gossipy Page Six—he signed a four-year, $15.5 million free-agent deal with Dallas. Avery, 28, will continue to earn his full salary this season. If, miraculously, an NHL team picks him up after the Stars place him on recallable waivers when his psychological treatment concludes, Dallas and Avery's new team would each pay half of his remaining 2008--09 salary. More likely the Stars will buy him out after the season for two thirds of the $12 million he would still be owed. Thus, Avery is guaranteed $11.5 million. "After he signed, I told him that now that he'd gotten the big contract, he could take it down a notch and just go out and play hockey," said Red Wings forward Kris Draper, Avery's friend and former teammate. "Unfortunately that's not what happened."
Forget trading him. The Stars, who don't have an American Hockey League affiliate, haven't found even a minor league team, let alone an NHL one, that wants Avery. When co--general manager Les Jackson contacted the coach of an AHL team whose parent NHL organization is known for taking on project players, he got a one-word answer: "No."
"When I was trying to move him [in 2007], only two teams were interested, the Rangers and one other," Lombardi recalls, even though Avery, playing his edgy style, had 67 points in his final season and a half with Los Angeles. "There wasn't even what I would call marginal interest, a 'we'll get back to you.' Will he get another opportunity? It's human nature to give a second chance, but [he's got] four years at a big number. [Dolphins running back] Ricky Williams has had many chances. The difference is, he goes for a tryout, makes the team, signs, but the contract isn't guaranteed."
It's scary, but everybody knows Sean Avery.
—CRAIG CONROY, Flames center
POLL YOUR average American, suggests an NHL veteran, and Avery will draw higher name recognition than any active player aside from Sidney Crosby. Avery, who declined to be interviewed for this story, retains the services of a Hollywood public relations firm, the only active NHL player known to have a nonsports publicist. For him this is a reasonable investment. According to a former teammate, Avery was at a house party in New York City last summer when an actress from a popular television show started chatting him up. She said she didn't know much about hockey, but she was mightily impressed that the NHL had made a rule just for him.
Yes, the Avery Rule. During a five-on-three power play in a first-round playoff game against New Jersey last April, Avery stood on the edge of the Devils' crease facing goalie Martin Brodeur and waved his stick repeatedly as a distraction. (Later Avery would mock the much-respected Brodeur as "fatso.") The act was aberrant and bush league, original and successful—Avery wound up scoring on the power play—32 seconds of well-considered madness that captured the essential Avery and forced a flummoxed league to do something. Quickly Avery's shadow dancing was deemed illegal, more grease for a wheel that has squeaked since 1996, when he showed up in Owen Sound to start his career as a 16-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League.
Dave Siciliano, his coach in Owen Sound, had his own Avery Rule, which he refers to as the 80/20: Siciliano devoted 80% of his time to Avery, while the other 20% went to the rest of the team. "You seemed to be dealing with something every day," says Siciliano. "He had an overzealousness and a lack of discipline that would cause rifts on the ice, at practice, on bus trips." On one trip Curtis Sanford, now a Canucks goalie, heard a scuffle at the back of the bus and wheeled in time to see captain Dan Snyder, upset by an Avery comment, being pulled off his mouthy teammate. Siciliano wanted to dump Avery, but Owen Sound G.M. Ray McKelvie recalls, "A lot of people had already gotten the idea that he wasn't a team player. It was hard to make a deal that made sense for us, until one night in Kingston he had three [goals] and three [assists]. A couple of days later [Kingston G.M. Larry Mavety] and I had a deal. Sean could get people riled up, but he was an excellent player."
By the time he reached the NHL, with Detroit in 2001--02, his reputation was entrenched: a hell-raiser with high-end speed and soft hands who could be more trouble than he was worth. With the Red Wings he was reined in as a rookie on a team leavened with future Hall of Fame players. "Mostly Sean was very endearing, like a kid brother," says Steve Yzerman, now a Detroit vice president.
But after being traded in March 2003 to the Kings, a team less secure in its identity, Avery ran amok, by hockey's standards. Even with a serendipitous do-over—he was kicked off the team with three games left in 2005--06 for refusing to participate in a drill and arguing with assistant coach Mark Hardy at practice but was allowed back after ownership replaced G.M. Dave Taylor with Lombardi that summer—he continued to roil teammates as much as opponents. He cruelly ridiculed the speech of left wing Dustin Brown, who has a slight lisp. "He was really hard on Brown, a quiet guy who just shut down," says Conroy, now with Calgary. "He didn't come out of his shell until Sean was gone."
There were dressing-room fisticuffs. Thornton and Avery had a "play fight" in Edmonton in late December 2006—it started when Avery hit Thornton with an exercise ball—and Thornton wound up breaking his wrist and missing 23 games. Lombardi, who after succeeding Taylor had announced that Avery was on "double secret probation," traded him to New York five weeks after the Thornton incident, but not before warning Rangers president Glen Sather that "you'll have him in your office once a week."
"Brett Hull criticized us when we traded Sean, saying our team was bad for Sean and bad for the game," Lombardi recalls. "Freedom of expression. How does [Hull, the Stars' co-G.M. with Jackson,] like it today? They spent $15.5 million to protect the right of free speech. Adams and Jefferson would be proud."
Sitting in a suburban Ottawa hotel lobby last month, the plainspoken Hull conceded that the reason he lobbied to sign Avery—he reckoned the Stars needed more "personality"—is also the reason the deal exploded. He acknowledged Avery was not the "fun kid" he remembered when they were teammates in Detroit. With Dallas this season Avery was not even the effective player he had been in New York, where the Rangers were 50-20-16 with Avery in the lineup and 9-13-3 without him. Avery has become an image, a brand. "I think the persona Sean took on"—the Vogue-interning, starlet-dating, crossover celebrity who feigned indifference to the game—"became more powerful than the real Sean," Hull says. "You know the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movie? Like that. It just overtook him. He decided to be Evil Sean."
Maybe Sean is the future. People say they want to see controversy.... Well, once in a while, this is what you get.
IF AVERY, despite his current ostracism, really is the future—and in 2009 who outside the NHL doesn't seem to want a telegenic, intriguing athlete who mostly plays well, dates A-listers and has a backstory?—ultimately will the hockey establishment be the ones offering an apology? "We spend time psychoanalyzing Sean," Lombardi muses. "Maybe we should be doing it to ourselves."
Sometime, somewhere, there will be a comeback. Avery will do the requisite scraping and bowing because, as Calgary's Michael Cammalleri, Avery's friend and former Kings teammate, says, "Without hockey Sean would just be some guy doing some crazy stuff." An e-mail message to SI from Nicole Chabot, Avery's publicist, late last month read, in part, "We at this point are just trying to weather the storm as best we can. The comeback story will be amazing, but we are a ways away with all the details still to be sorted out."
Oprah, schedule some couch time.
Avery's reputation was as a HELL-RAISER with speed and soft hands who could be more trouble than he was worth.
"I think the persona Sean took on"—CROSSOVER CELEBRITY who feigned indifference to the game—"became more powerful than the real Sean," Hull says.
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ON HIS OWN The six-game NHL ban is over, but Avery is still in counseling and his Dallas teammates don't want him back.
ROUGH STUFF Avery's on-ice antics led to 77 penalty minutes—while he scored only three goals—in 23 games this season.
JOHN SCIULLI/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (AVERY WITH HUNTER)
PAST... After dating former SI swimsuit model Hunter (left), Avery, then with the Kings, squired Cuthbert, a star on 24.
JOHN SCIULLI/WIREIMAGE FOR AUDI OF AMERICA, INC. (WITH CUTHBERT)
[See caption above]
CHARLEY GALLAY/GETTY IMAGES (STOLL AND HUNTER)
... PRESENT Hunter's engaged to Stoll and Cuthbert dates Phaneuf, whom Avery appeared to goad with his rude remark.
INFPHOTO (PHANEUF AND CUTHBERT)
[See caption above]