I have to admit, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sean Avery.
Making the old boys network bristle came so naturally to him. When a prominent Canadian TV personality asked him on air to finish the sentence, “Most hockey players are very…” Avery didn’t even blink before answering, “simple.”
Yeah, he looked like a jerk standing in front of Martin Brodeur, back turned to the play, waving his hands like a maniac. But when the NHL makes a rule up on your behalf, you deserve some creativity points.
I don’t know if I ever admired Avery’s approach, but I respected the fact in a league full of people saying nothing, he was saying something.
Avery’s perceived value reached its zenith last spring on the eve of his free agency. It takes some doing for a 15-goal-a-season forward who’s not a Selke candidate or a heavyweight fighter to get on the cover of The Hockey News. But there Avery was, prominently featured on the front of our magazine, the subject of a story where NHL GMs, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said things like the following:
“He is what he is. There are no surprises. You may not like everything about him, but you can’t deny his effectiveness.”
The way I, as a media member, couldn’t help but partially embrace a guy who always spoke his mind, the men under tremendous pressure to build winning hockey clubs couldn’t ignore Avery’s ability to impact on-ice outcomes, regardless of his technique.
But this latest incident of dancing for the cameras cements a few suspicions in my mind, not the least of which is that his worth as an employee or potential employee is plummeting.
If he didn’t play in a league with guaranteed contracts, I get the sense Dallas owner Tom Hicks would have cut him 10 minutes after hearing Avery’s comments.
Avery’s mouth finally seems to have tipped the balance in what was always a tenuous tightrope act.
Stars goalie Marty Turco, who’s had a rough enough year as it is, sounded downright defeated when he essentially said, “the show continues,” in response to Avery’s comments.
It reminded me of a parent, after working an exhausting 10-hour day at the office, coming home to find their kid decided to tear down the wallpaper and smear peanut butter in its place. The only plausible reaction at that point is, “What are you doing to me here?”
People in my profession have always been quick to eat up what Avery serves, but what’s leaving an increasingly stale taste in my mouth is how self-serving his agenda is. Avery always talks about how the NHL “doesn’t get it” in terms of using the media to create characters within the game as a way to promote itself. I think, to a large degree, he’s right.
I also think everything he does is more about growing revenues for what is surely to be a fantastic autobiography someday and less about a genuine desire to enhance hockey’s profile.
Players from the past known for speaking their mind were different than Avery in that it wasn’t always about them.
Guys like Brett Hull, one of the men responsible for Avery’s presence in Dallas, and Mario Lemieux were dubbed whiners by the establishment for complaining about the state of the game in the Dead Puck Era.
But in addition to each of them being 100 percent right in their assessment, both men, at least partially, had the game’s best interest at heart. Yes, their comments reflected personal unhappiness, but in the greater context they were talking about cleaning up – and in turn, benefiting – the entire game.
More and more, Avery’s quips seem to be about nothing more than expanding the Sean Avery Show.
Ultimately, the decision to immediately suspend Avery was a good one, partially because it curbed the possibility of Clint Eastwood-style vengeance on Dion Phaneuf’s part.
Still, the sentence wasn’t irony-free.
The NHL said it suspended Avery for actions that were “detrimental to the league or game of hockey.” What I really think Suit 1 said to Suit 2 at the league office after this broke was more along the lines of, “We don’t need to be giving the public any insight into how a lot of our players really talk.”
The indignation some people showed in the wake of the comments made me fear I was going to drown in a sea of hypocrisy. There was a quick ascent on the part of many to the top of Mount Moral, a nice, cozy place to bash Avery’s actions, while conveniently ignoring the well-established linguistic landscape of pro sports.
If you think what Avery said makes him unique among his fellow athletes, you don’t spend enough time in smelly locker rooms. I understand there’s a difference between saying it on national TV and whispering it among teammates. At the same time, there’s always some value in shedding light on what people are really doing and saying.
Was what he said that terrible? To be honest, I’m not sure. I do know a quick poll of females in this office indicated the words themselves were not offensive to them. But for a guy who’s come out and said some tasteless things and been accused of saying many, many more, it was too much to ignore.
Ironically, being ignored is a sensation Avery might soon feel for the first time in a while. That scrum-worthiness will never completely scrub off, but the media is fickle and acts wear thin. Longevity is always linked to relevance and if no NHL team wants you, your relevance is waning.
There was another anonymous GM quoted in our story last spring, one who knew there would be a big market for Avery in July, but also expressed a sentiment I believe will grow louder and louder in coming days as the Stars no doubt try to pluck this thorn.
“He’s a very effective player for the short term, but he’s also sometimes a little tough for some fans to take, the way he demeans other players. He’s effective, if he’d shut his mouth.”
With those comments in mind, this situation strikes me as one instance where Avery will be incapable of serving his own interests.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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