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A sort of homecoming: Stars' Avery embraces villain role in MSG return

Those fingernails on your chalkboard are really Sean Avery's skates sliding through your crease. Be careful you don't get slew-footed. Ignore the glue on your armrest, the whip cream in your hair and the thumb tack on your chair. Really your skates were already untied. Too bad you tripped. Surely your pen was already loose. Too bad it exploded in a bath of blue on your white shirt. Come to a hockey game and there is ample temptation to blame everything on Sean Avery. If the market was down, he probably fiddled with the stock exchange, too.

Avery is the blaring car alarm, the leaky faucet, the snow on your TV screen that only recedes during infomercials. He's the knot in your back, the kink in your knee, the elbow in your face and the stick in your groin. Face it, Avery is junk mail and spam, the gum under your shoe and the pebble inside it. He is annoyance on skates and, if you were Avery's teammates, he was sometimes that way off of them, too.

Avery made his first appearance in Madison Square Garden on Monday night, helping his new team, the Dallas Stars, beat his old team, the New York Rangers, 2-1, for their second win of the season. Avery didn't get on the scoreboard. Amazingly, he didn't even pick up a penalty. But he was the subject of attention for much of the night, and that's the way Avery, the leaf of spinach stuck between your front teeth, likes it.

During his brief stay in New York, Avery built a well-earned reputation as a player who drove other teams to frustration and disruption. The numbers didn't lie. The Rangers were just 9-13-3 when Avery was out of the lineup, but 50-20-16 when he played. Yet as much as Ranger players admired Avery's ability to draw attention to himself on the ice to help distract other teams, most felt he was just as intent on doing that off the ice, at the expense of the calm camaraderie that can mold individuals into a team. After all, this isn't the NFL. Avery wore outrageous clothes and said outrageous things. He openly complained that the NHL doesn't do enough to promote its more marketable players. Some of his habits have not sat well with teammates or opponents.

During the Rangers' first-round playoff series against the Devils, Avery's shenanigans actually caused the NHL to clamp down on its rules in mid-series after he spent much of the game face-guarding Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur. This was not a player trying the block the goalie's vision while facing the puck and screaming shots from the point. It was Avery going face-to-face with Brodeur, waving, yapping, occasionally slapping and driving the future Hall-of-Famer to retaliation. Avery later referred to Brodeur as "Fatso" and called him a whiner. When the teams lined up for the customary congratulatory handshakes after the Rangers clinched the series, Brodeur declined to acknowledge his tormenter or shake his hand. It was a sign of disrespect to match a pattern of the same. (The Stars will visit Brodeur's Devils on Wednesday.)

Avery suffered a lacerated spleen in the third game of the next round, when the Rangers dropped a five-game decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rangers GM Glen Sather made Avery a reported offer for $12 million to keep the free agent winger, but even as Avery interned at Vogue over the summer, he signed on with Dallas for $15.5 million. When the Rangers went out and signed forward Markus Naslund and defenseman Wade Redden, Avery criticized both signings, saying that New York fans would get after both players before long.

It still seems like an odd transition for a man who once thrived in Hollywood with the Kings, then on Broadway with the Rangers and is now embracing plans for a movie about his life while toiling in Dallas. "He's a big personality," Stars veteran Mike Modano said of his new teammate who now has two points, both assists, to show for his six games with the Stars. "He had the spotlight here in New York. He demands a lot out of his game. He lives on the edge. He has skills, for sure, but he needs to be on the edge in order to be effective. If he loses that in-your-face mentality, he loses that edge."

Before the game, Rangers coach Tom Renney talked about the tactic his team would employ before facing the uberpest: Ignore him. "We won't mention his name unless it's in passing or in the context of playing the Dallas Stars," Renney said.

During warm-up, Avery seemed to ignore most of the taunts thrown his way, although he did fake a toss to some fans who screamed for a puck. At one point, he spotted Rangers backup goalie Steven Valiquette skating near the red line, and slid over to start squawking.

It took Avery 10 seconds to throw the game's first hit against Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. Granted, that hit was clean, but just 15 seconds later, when Dallas left wing Loui Eriksson took a penalty for tripping, Avery tried to even up the sides (or maybe settle old debts) by gliding in front of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and starting a conversation. Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky, one of the many Blueshirts on Avery Watch during the game, skated in between the pair and subtly shoved Avery away from the goaltender. Dubinsky has been one of the most outspoken Rangers about the disruption Avery caused while he was with the team. Asked what Avery said to him during the first period, Lundqvist answered: "It's not going to be in the paper."

In the last minute of the first period, Avery skated from the face-off circle to nail Scott Gomez and then grabbed his face in mock agony after Gomez turned and stared at him. Seconds later, Rangers strongman Colton Orr intercepted Avery in front of the Stars bench to give him a gentle elbow and perhaps issue a challenge. Again, Avery threw his hands up to his head.

In all, Avery skated 17 shifts for 14 minutes, threw five hits and was always the 500-pound No. 16 in the room. Ironically, the quote machine refused to talk to reporters before the game, issuing a statement instead. After the game, Avery sat at his locker, slowly removing his skates and the tape from his socks while reporters circled around waiting to ask the first question. After several minutes of silence, Avery raised his head and started talking: "You guys are all great," he said. "I love you, but I have to go and take my teammates out to dinner while they still like me."

At that, Avery began walking away. "Not even one question?" MSG Network's veteran broadcaster Stan Fischler asked.

"Thanks, guys," Avery said.

And to think the circus usually visits the Garden in springtime.

Fischler did manage to track Avery down in the corridor afterwards to get a few words from him. "It's the Garden," Avery said of the mixed reaction from the crowd. "That's why it's the greatest arena on Earth. I was actually enjoying the boos as much as the cheers."

On his pre-game exchange with Valiquette, Avery replied: "That's just me being me. He's a minor leaguer, and he's gotta get noticed and what better way than to talk about me."

When Fischler suggested that Brad Pitt might be a good candidate to play Avery in the ballyhooed movie-to-be, the forward turned up his nose and answered, "He's a little old."

Finally, in a moment of candor, Avery signed off, acknowledging Fischler's remark that he was one of the NHL's supreme villains.

"I'm very good at it," he said. "You should always stick to what you're good at."

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