How do you solve a problem like Sean Avery?

by Jas Faulkner,  senior correspondent

“I’ve known this kid since he was about 16 years old.  Once a jerk, always a jerk.”  -Don Cherry

copyright 2011 Jas Faulkner

Long before the possible effects of blows to the head and the prospect of the game having a body count took over discourse within the sport, there were other issues that the Godfathers of the Ice saw as dangers to the game.   Back in the primeval mists of 2008, the Powers That Be honestly believed that what would eventually bring down the National Hockey League was Sean Avery’s mouth.

In light of recent on-ice shenanigans that would maim players, a tacky remark about an ex-girlfriend hardly seems to be the stuff of bannings and the possible termination of a promising career.  It seems almost surreal.  Here’s what happened:

On December 2nd, 2008, at approximately 8:45 am,  Sean Avery was approached by members of the Calgary media.  During the conversation, he referred to his ex-girlfriend, who was dating Flames offensive powerguy, Dion Phaneuf , as his “sloppy seconds”.

On December 2nd, 2008,  just shy of 1:00 pm, the NHL suspended him indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the league or the game of hockey”.  Three days later the league would relent and change the suspension to six games.  Avery would claim that he was only trying to generate some buzz about the game.  The NHL officials were unmoved and required that Avery get counseling before returning to the rink. Another person who was unconvinced was Dallas’ Assistant General Manager, Brett Hull, who  stated that as far as Avery was concerned, the focus would be on clinical intervention.   On the 14th, the day after the last game of Avery’s suspension, Hull announced that Avery would not be returning to the Stars active roster, citing his own and Coach Dave Tippett’s concerns about Avery’s mental health and the effect his presence would have on the team.

Was this overkill based on an isolated incident? Not really.  Bouncing from team to team and controversy to controversy had been a mainstay of Avery’s career for quite some time:

When Avery was traded from his first NHL team, Red Wings General Manager, Ken Holland stated that Avery was talented, but lacked respect for the game.

During his time with his next team, the Los Angeles Kings, Avery kept the pundits as busy.   He accused the NHL of lying to players during the lockout, accused the French Canadian players of posturing, and allegedly called Edmonton Oilers African-Canadian winger Georges Laraque a monkey.

League disciplinarian Colin Campbell might fine and suspend Avery.  Teammate and legendary bad boy in his own right Chris Chelios might declare him impossible as a roommate.   It would be Anaheim analyst and Habs alumnus Brian Hayward who would finally gainsay Avery.  During a postgame interview, Avery would tell Hayward he was a terrible player and an embarrassment as a broadcaster.  Hayward was quick with a lethal response.  “How would you know?” he retorted, “When I played, you were in your third year of eighth grade.”

A Plus and a Minus on the Ice

As a player, Avery swings from steady to showing flashes of potential greatness. Here is his story by the numbers:

 Year Team GP G A Pts +/- PIM Hits BkS PPG PPA SHG SHA GW SOG Pct
 2001-02 DET 36 2 2 4 1 68 N/A N/A 0 1 0 0 1 30 .067
 2002-03 DET 39 5 6 11 7 120 N/A N/A 0 1 0 0 2 40 .125
 2002-03 LA 12 1 3 4 0 33 N/A N/A 0 2 0 0 0 19 .053
 2003-04 LA 76 9 19 28 2 261 N/A N/A 0 0 0 0 2 125 .072
 2005-06 LA 75 15 24 39 -5 257 N/A N/A 1 3 3 0 1 189 .079
 2006-07 LA 55 10 18 28 -10 116 N/A N/A 1 8 1 0 2 160 .063
 2006-07 NYR 29 8 12 20 11 58 N/A N/A 1 5 0 1 0 89 .090
 2007-08 NYR 57 15 18 33 6 154 N/A N/A 2 2 0 1 4 125 .120
 2008-09 NYR 18 5 7 12 4 34 N/A N/A 2 0 0 0 0 50 .100
 2008-09 DAL 23 3 7 10 2 77 N/A N/A 0 3 0 0 0 49 .061
 2009-10 NYR 69 11 20 31 0 160 145 17 3 6 0 0 1 139 .079
 2010-11 NYR 76 3 21 24 -4 174 115 24 0 1 0 0 1 137 .022
 Career 565 87 157 244 14 1512 260 41 10 32 4 2 14 1152 .076

The infamous bad behaviour towards Roenick, Brodeur and Thomas, the astronomical penalty minutes loom large in his story.  What is overlooked is the confrontational style that sometimes flies in the face of canon, the japes that constitute looking askance at the code.  This behaviour from a less vocal player might be labeled the handiwork of a pest rather than a menace.

Actor, Model, Handbag Critic, Human Rights Advocate, Public Enemy…

By 2010, Avery’s image seemed pretty well set.  The brash, sometimes crass bad boy who demonstrated talent in a number of areas once again started the pundits spinning when he appeared in an ad for New Yorkers For Marriage Equality.  In response to the furor over the ad, Avery told a New York Times reporter, “I have been surrounded by the gay community.  Living in New York and when you live in L.A., you’re bound to have a lot of gay friends.”

Social media outlets buzzed with speculation about Avery’s private life.  Within in professional circles, the response was restrained until Todd Reynolds, an agent for Uptown Sports, an Ontario firm, expressed his disapproval on Twitter.  From that point, lines were drawn between those who approved or at least felt that Avery’s personal life was none of their business and those who felt such a position had no place in hockey.

Avery’s personal life is just that, personal.   It should be borne in mind that the odds of his gaining a greater appreciation for personal differences might have gotten a boost from occasional excursions into modeling, acting in movies and television, and a summer spent as an intern for the North American edition of Vogue.

Do Bad Boys Ever Grow Up?

The waning months of 2011 have not been easy for Avery.  A spurious charge  led to his arrest in Los Angeles and war of words with beleagered Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds has made some observers wonder if the NHL’s most famous problem child has truly grown up.  When he  was placed on waivers and then sent to the AHL, it was seen by some as a stopgap, to others as a development whose time had come.  In response, Avery have been circumspect about his past issues and speaks primarily of a more settled future with his focus on continuing to grow as a player.  The time away from Madison Square Garden might have given him some perspective. He has spoken of his potential earning power beyond being a player and the importance of staying in the game and in New York for now.

Brattiness is often concomitant to unconventional talent and a genius for pushing the limits.  Over the years, what has been less evident to many critics and observers is how Avery’s restless intellect and need to explore new avenues has been expressed by the choices he has made both on and off the ice.   The true test of Sean Avery’s mettle is eminent.  He s being given a second chance, something he was truly too talented not to get. Only he can make the choice to remain an infant terrible or grow into his true destiny as an iconoclast.

2 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like Sean Avery?”

  1. All the bitterness that gets tossed Avery’s way, and well deserved no doubt. He has not only endured a very troubled career, but his personal life in the spotlight has given many a writer an open door to slam him in the boards, I too am guilty.
    I watched his last spot on camera, the dressing room after practice last week. My opinion has completely gone 360 with this guy, I’m thinking that we may need to have some empathy with Sean. My opinon only, but this guy’s issues go well beyond the surface of the ice, and for that one almost feels sorry for him. Once he is done in NY Sean Avery will only be a memory, one with a snicker…………..

    • James, your last sentence might be prophetic. Being as talented and as inquisitive as Avery has to be both a hindrance and a gift. He seems to think beyond the dasherboards and the locker room. In the past it might have served as a subconscious escape hatch when he made things tough for himself. If the hockey thing didn’t work out, he could go model or write or act.

      Not to say that he can’t or shouldn’t pursue those things in the future. I hope he does. Maybe what we’re seeing now is grown up Sean who has figured out how much he loves hockey. It’s true that they (Who are “they” anyway?) say it’s wisest to hope for the best and expect the worst. Personally, I’m putting my hopes and expectations in the same column.

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