Sean Avery Falls Short of Fearless Truth-Teller Reputation in 'Ice Capades'

Sean Avery's book has plenty of stories about hockey fights and famous NHLers, but mostly, it's the former third-liner talking about himself.
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Did you know New York Ranger fans used to chant Sean Avery’s name at Madison Square Garden? If you didn’t, he tells you so in his new memoir. Seven times. His chosen diss for Hall of Famer Mike Modano: “No one has chanted his name at MSG.”

Is that the most grating part of Avery’s lively, dishy bildungsroman on skates,Ice Capades: A Memoir of Fast Living and Tough Hockey (written with Michael McKinley)? Hard to say. At various points he offers such reminiscences as: “I never made fun of Dustin Brown’s lisp. I did make fun of Dustin Brown’s girlfriend”; “I gave a healthy, firm, and flirtatious slap to Paris [Hilton]’s ass”; and “I was blowing people away—especially the gay guys.” There is also his disquisition on making out with, then negging, Scarlett Johansson one night at erstwhile New York hotspot Bungalow 8.  

Then again, this must be the first book that manages to gripe about the manners of both Darcy Hordichuk and André Leon Talley, so for that alone he deserves some commendation.

Ice Capades (titled Offside: My Life Crossing the Line in Canada, where they’re handier with hockey nomenclature) follows Avery’s journey from Red Wings rookie camp to, yes, the Garden, with stops in Los Angeles and Dallas in between and famous women on his arm throughout. He extols superstar teammates like Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, and Brendan Shanahan; excoriates John Tortorella and Modano; and recounts memorable dalliances with the league’s best goons. But the bulk of the book, naturally, is Avery talking about himself.

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In the introduction he declares, “Name me a more famous third-liner in NHL history,” and while as invocations go it’s not quite “Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending,” it indeed summarizes what made him a singular presence in the biggest market in the smallest of the big four sports. The gadfly winger scored only 90 goals in his NHL career, tying him for No. 1,157 on the all-time list, and he never played in so much as a conference final. But twice he led the league in penalty minutes and he remains the sole player in NHL history whose innovations in agitation prompted a change to the rules in the midst of the playoffs; he nettled one of the game’s greatest goaltenders, Martin Brodeur, by facing him while screening him:

And although professional athletes have been dating model-actresses and expanding into other realms as long as there have existed professional athletes, model-actresses and other realms, it’s fair to say that Avery’s sex life and off-ice interests were more conspicuous, during his playing days, than those of any of his peers. (He drew so much attention because he was an uncommon individual by NHL standards and also because he had an uncommon gift for self-promotion by NHL standards; which trait is more responsible for the legend of Sean Avery remains something of a mystery.)

At irritating opponents, a genuinely valuable skill, Avery excelled. He would camp in front of Brodeur’s net and tell him “what a disgrace he [was] for falling in love with his sister-in-law.” (“Tell me,” Avery writes, “where in the ‘Hockey Man’ rule book it says I can’t tell this guy he’s a f---ing dirtbag every time I see him.”) To Eric Lindros, citing his over-involved mother, he says “Pick up the pace, Bonnie, you fat f---.” As a youngster, Avery tells Joe Sakic that he had seen him walk into the arena pregame and wondered how someone making $8 million a year could dress so badly. (Hull, Avery’s teammate at the time, overhears the comment and tells Avery, “You are never to speak with or to Mr. Sakic in that tone again.”)

At endearing himself to his own coaches and general managers? Not so much. He got run out of three of the four cities in which he played (Detroit, Los Angeles and Dallas) and in New York butted heads so much with Tortorella that he ended his career in the minors in 2012 while the Rangers were having their best season in decades. Pro locker rooms are often homogenizing spaces, repressive of the quirky types. But Avery wasn’t some helpless bohemian—he was simply headstrong. And his assessments may miss the mark; the man he called Tortorella’s “big goofy sidekick,” former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan, has coached the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups.

As far as his off-ice endeavors are concerned, Avery willed himself into the Met Ball and scored a summer internship at Vogue. He partied at clubs that had never before played host to hockey players; he befriended Andy Cohen. (A handful of Avery’s passages would not be out of place in a Michael Musto book.) And he squired stars around L.A. and New York. He writes at length about his relationships with models Rachel Hunter and Hilary Rhoda, whom he married in 2015, and actress Elisha Cuthbert. 

After he and Cuthbert split, and she took up with then-Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf (they’re now married), Avery offered the coarsest public comment of his career: "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.” The remark got him suspended from the Stars and sent, without entirely proper cause, to rehab in Malibu for anger management. 

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Avery apologizes clearly and believably in Ice Capades for what he said. (“I felt like shit for embarrassing Elisha… I am very sorry for causing her any distress at all.”) There is nevertheless a current of light misogyny running through the book; women, save for the senior leadership of Vogue and the wives of other players, appear in the narrative only as sex objects. The reader could do without descriptions of New York like this one: “Even the prostitutes were elite—not the usual suicide blonde draped in too much faux gold, but more like a hot pharmaceutical rep waiting for a meeting.” His assessment from a Vogue shoot that Claire Danes “does not have the body of a supermodel [but] still captures the camera’s fickle eye with her pouty, intense, intelligent seduction” is also a little much.

And for all the colorful war stories Avery tells—I recommend his account of accidentally poisoning Brett Hull with pot cookies—Ice Capades does not match the fearless-truth-teller reputation he cultivates. He skips over the time he allegedly mocked a competitor’s leukemia diagnosis and he reveals little about his Ranger teammates.

The memoir’s salient and gloomiest truth is one that goes essentially unwritten: For all of Avery’s interests outside hockey, and his above-it-all pose during his playing days, his life from the outside seems darker without the game in it. Since retiring, Avery has mocked the homeless on Snapchat, been arrested for throwing rocks at police cars and drug possession, and quit a play in a huff. He’s flitted professionally from fashion to marketing to acting. The New York Post contended last year that “Avery is ruining his life—and maybe his model wife’s.” He doesn’t write about any of this in Ice Capades. Maybe that’s because it’s all unfair, a series of misunderstandings. Or maybe it’s that life can be awfully cruel when the Garden isn’t chanting your name.