Wednesday December 3rd, 2008

There he goes, folks. Gary Bettman: Man of Action.

When an incident threatens the very integrity of the league, as one apparently did yesterday judging by all the ruffled feathers, the commissioner swoops in with his mighty sword of justice to keep the game safe for his grateful constituents -- and in this case, a particular group of constituents in Dallas is quite grateful.

It should be noted, though, that what drew Bettman's ire on Tuesday was not a vicious hit from behind or another brutal blow to a defenseless head. It was a tawdry case of name-calling by the ever-quotable Sean Avery.

Hard to imagine you've missed the particulars of this one, but here are the Cliffs Notes: With the Stars in Calgary to face the Flames, Avery held court with the media following the morning skate. After asking if a TSN camera was present, he offered up an obviously well-considered statement about Flames blueliner Dion Phaneuf dating Avery's ex-squeeze, Elisha Cuthbert:.

"I am really happy to be back in Calgary, I love Canada," he said. "I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight."

Not exactly a spoonful of Crash Davis brand media pabulum, to be sure. It was immature, ill-advised and undoubtedly self-serving.

But an offense punishable by the league? Please.

Real threats to the game like those mentioned above have been boiling over for the past month, and yet Bettman chooses to assert his authority over a schoolyard-level incident with a zinger so lacking in impact that it was rebroadcast verbatim on the NHL's own network.

If Bettman had any real understanding of the game, he would have left this to be addressed on the ice by the Flames, which certainly would have made for a more compelling offering than the passionless contest that transpired. But the commish knows best, and within hours he'd placed a restraining bolt on Avery, suspending him indefinitely pending a hearing under By-Law 17 and Article 6 of the league constitution that covers conduct "detrimental to the league or game of hockey."

It is believed to be the first such suspension of a player for a comment made off the ice. No surprise that Avery broke the seal on that one. Even his staunchest defenders -- and yes, there are some -- will admit that he has an unparalleled gift for bringing it on himself.

Still, this hardly ranks as a matter of broad scrutiny. If Bettman was convinced this needed to be handled above board, he should have left it in the hands of the Stars. They, after all, are the ones left to deal with the aftermath of this distraction. And judging by the words of owner Tom Hicks, they were ready to assume that responsibility.

But it was the NHL that mandated that Avery be put on a plane back to Dallas this morning while the rest of the Stars move on to Edmonton to face the Oilers tonight. His next flight will be to New York, where he'll be hauled on the carpet in front of Bettman. No word yet on the specifics of that meeting, but Thursday seems likely.

Maybe the Commish is just doing a favor for his buddy Hicks. Truth is, if the Stars were willing to give voice to their private thoughts, they'd admit to hoping that the commissioner sits Avery down for a long time. Preferably, the duration of his four-year, $15.5 million contract.

In a league where circling the wagons is the first order of business, it's odd to see both teammates and management turn on one of their own so quickly. But you don't have to be particularly perceptive to get the sense that Avery's not truly a member of the Stars. Since joining the club this summer, he's done little to weave himself into the team's culture. That much was obvious even if your only exposure to that skewed chemistry was the series of statements issued by key players in the aftermath.

You didn't even need to have the sound on. Their body language cranked up the volume.

"We expect that out of him like we have all year," said Marty Turco, whose on-ice issues have caused far more trouble for the struggling Stars than Avery's antics. "The show continues. I just hope he's man enough to show up tonight."

"It's none of my business what he says," Brad Richards offered. "I'd rather not talk about Sean. He's got his own thing going on."

Even co-GM Brett Hull is distancing from the player he brought in expressly to add some spice to an otherwise bland lineup.

"This goes beyond hockey and beyond the game on the ice, and that's what bothers me," Hull told the Dallas Morning News. "We have talked and talked and talked about being on the edge within the game but not going over the line. We told him from the start that he can not do things that would embarrass the organization. Play hard, push the game on the ice, but do not embarrass the organization."

While waiting for Bettman's ruling, the speculation surrounds not the length of Avery's shunning, but what happens next. No matter the duration, it's hard to imagine Avery being welcomed back into the room when his ban expires. He has a limited no-trade clause, but the duration and cap hit of his deal make him all but unmovable. He could be waived, or he could be bought out next summer at considerable expense.

Chances are he's done with the team. And Avery likely won't be the only one to take a bullet. It would surprise no one to see Hull's tenure as co-GM to come to an end as well, with the Hall of Famer given other responsibilities in the organization.

But those are problems the Stars need to deal with. Bettman's sword of justice is best applied elsewhere.

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