Sean Avery, rebelwithout applause, is on double-secret probation. ¬∂ The new general manager ofthe Los Angeles Kings, Dean Lombardi, aping Animal House's Dean Wormer,pronounced the sentence last summer after the team re-signed Avery to aone-year, $1.1 million contract. And instead of crashing the homecoming parade,the emotional winger, who has roiled hockey with his play and his mouth, whobecame the most hated player in the game--at times, even in his own dressingroom--has been a good boy ever since. ¬∂ Well, pretty much. ¬∂ Although he hasassumed his customary place among the NHL's penalty-minute leaders--he hastopped the league for each of the last two seasons--his malfeasance has leftthe Kings shorthanded just nine times this year. And although he still jabsopponents on the ice with sly and scabrous comments that have been scripted formaximum effect ("You didn't deserve your gold medal," he once told EricLindros, who underperformed on Canada's team in 2002), Avery now clearly seemsmore intent on playing than on stirring the pot. Take the night of Oct. 23.Colorado was thumping the Kings, scoring three goals on five-on-three powerplays, staking a 6--1 lead. If ever there were an engraved invitation forhockey idiocy, this was it. But Avery didn't RSVP. He kept skating hard,hounding the puck. "At the end of the game where our team deteriorated, youcould see the frustration in Sean, but he held it together," says Kingscoach Marc Crawford. "Our trainers talked to the refs afterward, and bothsaid, 'Boy, has he changed.'"
"It's almostlike [being] an alcoholic," Avery says. "I don't think alcoholics canhave one drink, then take a couple of days off. I've got to keep myself incheck, or it'll be a snowball effect. At the point I'm pissed off, I want to gooff the deep end, and make [someone] pay for something, somehow. In the pastthe voice [in my head] was saying, 'All right. Should I grab this player orthat player? What can I do to blow them up and make them want to kill me evenmore next game? I don't think I can do that any more."
Mr. 12-StepProgram, wearing a black polo and black slacks, sits at a corner table of ahotel dining room spooning a bowl of Lucky Charms. This is a minor miracle. No,not a 26-year-old eating kiddie cereal but that the interview is unfolding hereat all. The Kings wanted it restricted to the rink, before relenting. GivingAvery a forum has been like handing a grenade to a monkey. Maybe nothing willhappen, but....
A disciple of theBrett Hull school of outspokenness--in 2001--02, as a rookie, Avery lived withHull in Detroit, which ex--Red Wings teammate Brendan Shanahan says "islike giving a guy who has a whole lot of guns a whole lot of bullets"--hehas, at various times, called Phoenix captain Shane Doan "the NHL's mostoverrated player," trashed Nashville star Paul Kariya as "a diver"and derided Anaheim center Andy McDonald as "an arrogant littlemidget."
"No one'sbeen spared his commentary," says Montreal forward Mike Johnson. "Therehasn't [even] been respect for the stars or some of the older players."
"There's atime and a place for everything," says Kings captain Mattias Norstrom."Last year it was always the time and always the place for Sean." In asport that accepts a level of bad behavior, Avery forged a new frontier in2005--06 when he: a) belittled French Canadian players by saying that thenCoyote defenseman Denis Gauthier, who had leveled Avery's teammate JeremyRoenick with a check, was "typical of most French guys in our league, witha visor on, running around and playing tough and not back[ing] anythingup"; b) was accused by then Oiler Georges Laraque, who is black, of callinghim a "monkey" (Avery denies it); c) ridiculed a $1,000 fine he got fordiving and excoriated the NHL executive who levied it; d) screamed profanely atAnaheim broadcaster Brian Hayward in a dressing room ("You're anembarrassment.... You're a horses--- announcer") days after Hayward hadsuggested that Avery "needed a beating" for cross-checking a Ducksrookie in the back of the neck, then avoiding Anaheim enforcer Todd Fedoruk; e)was sent home for the last three games of the season after a verbal tiff withKings assistant Mark Hardy, who thought Avery was dogging it in practice; andf) was yanked as an analyst from Sportsnet, a Canadian network, after the NHLexpressed concerns.
"It's neverbeen medically proven," Avery says, "but I obviously suffer from somesort of--you know, I don't think this is a cop-out like a lot of kids usenowadays--but there's some sort of ADD going on."
Lombardi thinksthe acting up, or acting out, is a shortcut to the attention Avery craves. Thetruth is, Avery's game might be enough to get notice. Buried beneath theverbiage, camouflaged by the penalties, is this: Avery can play. "Amazinglytalented," says Roenick, now with Phoenix. "Without question [he was]the best skater on our team. Good shot. Very good hands." Through Sunday,Avery, who had 15 goals last season, had two, the same as the number ofpublicists he employs. (Even Wayne Gretzky, when he played, didn't have apersonal publicist; Avery says they help "get myself out there in a morepositive manner.") Crawford has been generous with ice time, often bumpingup Avery, who can play all three forward positions, to the second line and thepower play. Avery's also a strong penalty killer. "His ability level ishigh for our group," says Crawford of his team, which at week's end was11th in the Western Conference. "But his issues are the same. They revolvearound focus."
The Kings havegiven Avery three basic rules: respect the game, respect the officials andrespect your teammates. Historically, the last has proved the most problematic,almost from the moment he bounded into the dressing room of a Red Wings teamwith eight surefire Hall of Famers and announced, "Call me 'A-Dog.'"("You're no dog," a teammate replied. "You're a puppy," whichbecame Avery's first NHL nickname.) Former Detroit goalie Manny Legace recallscaptain Steve Yzerman and Shanahan "running him ragged. Sean aggravated afew guys. But we were a veteran team. Mostly we thought he washilarious."
When Detroittraded him to Los Angeles in 2003, Avery landed on a team less sure of itself.And if L.A. is fueled by celebrity, Avery was pumping high octane. According toRoenick, one problem was teammates' jealousy of Avery's life, which nowincludes his girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert (24, The Girl Next Door)."Guys didn't like that he lived among the Hollywood people," saysRoenick, an Avery booster. "Here was a guy who wasn't established who wastrying to lead the life of someone who already had made a name for himself.Also I had to keep reminding him to make himself part of the team. To come inand say 'Good morning.' Your teammates don't have to like you, but they have torespect you. Sometimes the way Sean acted, he didn't deserve either."
TheFrench-guys-with-visors comment, aimed at Gauthier, struck unintended targets,especially √àric Bélanger, Avery's linemate. After Avery made his remark, saysBélanger, now with Carolina, he "called to apologize. He asked, 'Bellie,did I go too far?' I said, 'Sean, I'm French and I wear a visor. Does that meanI'm chickens---?'"
"He's adisrespectful person," says Colorado winger Ian Laperri√®re, anotherex-linemate. "Can't say I like him. Never did. Never will." Once,during a game in L.A., Shanahan skated to Avery at the Kings bench and loudlysaid, "Lose my number. Don't call me again. I'm tired of listening to youbitch about how much you hate your coaches and teammates." Avery laughs atthe story. He says Shanahan was yapping because Avery had zinged him with how"power" should be removed from the power forward label attached toShanahan. Indeed, the two still talk and text message. Says Shanahan, "Interms of marketing, packaging, entertainment, he's one of the few [NHL] guyswho gets it. Not always. But he's on to something."
Avery, withsideshow inclinations and center-ring skills, is at a crossroads. "I don'tregret anything, but if I have an opinion now, I go home and talk to people whoit's not going to affect and get it off my chest that way," Avery says."At times I still feel the urge [to say something that will make] peopletell me, 'Why the hell did you say that?' But I just imagine [doing] itnow."
Yet the NHL'ssqueaky wheel still seethes with ambition and yes, he concedes, anger. As hetells a story about his first trip to the principal's office--in first orsecond grade, he was yelling in a kid's ear because he refused to believe thechild was deaf--he spots Jonny Murray, a linesman who had worked the gameagainst the Avalanche the previous night. Avery is steamed about the penaltiesthat sank the Kings, especially an interference call on center Craig Conroy andConroy's subsequent unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. As he leaves for the teambus, brushing past Murray's table, Avery dismisses thoughts of unloading on theofficial. "I hope," he says, a smile dancing across his mouth,"[Conroy] does, though."
AROUND THE RINKS
Get more NHL news from Michael Farber as well as notesand analysis from Brian Cazeneuve, Allan Muir and Darren Eliot atSI.com/nhl.