Game Night in the Garden of Good and Evil: The Trial, Tribulation, and Redemption of Sean Avery

"Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is shallow and dangerous."
-- Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

Many a New York athlete has flailed under the bright lights of Jay McInerney’s big city. Athletes in New York are always under scrutiny, whether it’s the floodlights of Madison Square Garden, the flashes of cell phone and paparazzi cameras, or the allure of a city that never goes dark. Where McInerney’s Tad is a typical nightlife hedonist, sport is not supposed to be about pleasure—winning is paramount and nothing else should matter. Pleasure is dangerous because it deviates from the requisite single-mindedness we have come to expect. Players who draw attention to themselves—whether it’s a point guard taking bad shots to pad box score stats or a hitter swinging for the fences with a commanding lead—do so at the expense of the team, which stands above all.

Hockey has always been a game that embraces these workmanlike principles and often shuns or discourages individual glamour. Players’ faces, when not obscured by visors, are often masks of bruises, scars, and missing teeth; cut players get stitched up quickly, often without missing a shift. They are not supposed to be complainers or agitators. They are to hold their game reverently, preserving a sanctified code of sport that dictates how to play, how to act, and even how and when to fight.

So are our athletes supposed to enjoy their sport? Allowed to? And, for that matter, to what extent are they supposed to enjoy the privileges that come with fame and success? At times, even in hockey’s self-constructed bubble, players make louder impacts away from the ice than they do on it, none moreso than hockey’s resident pest in perpetuity Sean Avery. “Avery doesn’t fit in with the barroom morality that guides the hockey world,” the National Post’s Stephen Marche wrote in 2008. “At times, he seems not to fit in with hockey at all.”

Avery played his first NHL game as a member of the Detroit Red Wings on January 9, 2002; since then he has played in 580 NHL games and accumulated 1,533 penalty minutes—averaging more penalty minutes per game than notorious agitators like Dale Hunter and enforcers like Donald Brashear. Standing only 5’10,” he’s not all that physically imposing in a league where giants like 6’9” Zdeno Chára tower over their competition. He’s never scored more than 18 goals or 48 points in a season and, as a result, usually mans the third or fourth line. His early career was a series of burned bridges and worn-out welcomes. “The only thing I would say is obviously we had him as a young player at that time and our concern was his lack of respect for the game, the people in the game and, obviously, he left us," Detroit GM Ken Holland, who traded Avery to the Kings in 2003, reflected in 2008. “He has worked his way through a few organizations now and it's apparent that he hasn't matured.”

Avery’s four-year stay in Los Angeles was marred by more instability, including a dust-up with Anaheim Ducks’ broadcaster and former player Brian Hayward in 2006. Avery confronted Hayward after a game for Hayward’s disparaging on-air comments and commented on Hayward’s playing career. “How would you know?” Hayward remarked. “You were in the third year of the eighth grade then.” A 2007 poll of 283 NHL players named Avery the most hated player in hockey, and he was traded to the New York Rangers in February of that year.

For reasons still somewhat unclear, Avery finally flourished upon reaching New York, scoring 20 points his 29 games on Broadway, helping the on-fire team launch a stretch where they went 17-4-6 and returned to the playoffs. Rangers fans embraced Avery’s agitating playing style, which often frustrated and distracted other teams’ more skilled players. In the team’s opening-round playoff series, then-Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk spent most of the series chasing Avery around the ice and the Rangers swept the series before being eliminated in the Conference Semifinals.

The next year in the playoffs, Avery again dominated the headlines while battling with New Jersey’s perennial all-star goalie Martin Brodeur. Their mutual dislike—Avery calls Brodeur “Fatso”—came to a head during a first-round when the Rangers were on a two-man advantage. Rather than executing the traditional back-to-the-goaltender screen, Avery stood at the top of the crease facing Brodeur and waving his stick in his face. He scored later on the play, and the Rangers ultimately won the series.

"An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty (Rule 75) will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender's face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play,” the league office ruled the next day, and the “Avery Rule” was born. But is this actually unsportsmanlike conduct? Creative antagonism? Or somewhere in between? Over the course of his career, Avery has made his living inhabiting this somewhere-in-between – Avery stands as a veritable anti-hockey anti-hero whose trademark sneer is challenging entrenched standards of the old-guard hockey establishment. “I want to make our sport cooler,” Avery told the New York Times during his first season in New York.

There were clear signs that Avery, who was born in Toronto in 1980, was settling into Big Apple life. Avery opened a bar, Warren 77, in Tribeca; he and other Rangers stop in from time to time for various appearances. Nowhere, though, was he extending his off-ice profile more than in the unlikeliest of arenas – the fashion world – announcing in April 2008 that he would spend his summer offseason as an intern for Vogue.

“Avery is a self-confessed clotheshorse who has been known to give girlfriends advice on how to dress, and in interviews has expressed a dream to become a fashion editor after his days on the ice,” Women’s Wear Daily wrote. Newsweek called him “hands down [the NHL’s] best-dressed player.” After writing a personal letter to Anna Wintour, Avery spent the summer fulfilling some intern tasks (allegedly making copies) while making his fellow “unpaid masses” jealous with a trip to Paris’s couture fashion shows. He presented his first clothing line for New York Fashion Week in 2009. Michael Bastian, who is a designer for Gant, sees Avery as a fashion-sport trailblazer, telling the Times in September that Avery “proved that a famous athlete could be interested in clothes without it calling his masculinity in question.”

Over the course of his career, Avery has been known to wear black nail polish on one hand—in his words, his “fighting hand”—to intimidate and to some extent emasculate other players who want to drop the gloves with him. Acknowledged or not, moves like this represent a subtle challenge to long entrenched norms of rugged masculinity in sport.

Along with star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Avery has helped indoctrinate a new sense of style for the Rangers, who have appropriately become the NHL’s best-dressed team. Lundqvist, who has also spent his fair share of time at Fashion Week, told the New York Post, “It’s not just me and Sean. It’s fun that a lot of the guys love fashion now.”

In drawing comparisons to a “walking GQ spread,” the Rangers, it seems, are embracing alternative ways to articulate masculinity, even if their grinning photos are missing a tooth here or there.  Hockey’s concussion crisis is very real, with more star players going down each day. Initiatives to curb blindside hits to the head have been met with resistance because of a culture of brutish masculinity ingrained in how many players see themselves. Players like former Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, whose lengthy battle with drug abuse and aftereffects of concussions was chronicled wonderfully by the Times earlier this month, were faced with the immense difficulty of deciding to fight or fail. As players’ attitudes toward their game change, so too, perhaps, will the culture surrounding the sport itself. So maybe Avery represents not the devil incarnate—whether he wears Prada or not.

Avery left the Rangers in the summer of 2008 to sign a lucrative deal with the Dallas Stars, but there were issues from the outset, highlighted by an impromptu pregame announcement on December 2. “I'm really happy to be back in Calgary; I love Canada,” he said to the assembled reporters. “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, but enjoy the game tonight.” The comment was in reference to Flames’ player Dion Phaneuf, who was dating Avery’s ex-girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert. The league suspended Avery indefinitely and the Stars made him seek anger management. As his suspension ended, the team announced that Avery would not be welcome to return to the team. In his apology, Avery said, "It was a bad attempt to build excitement for the game.”

For some time, Avery has occupied an interesting space in the public face of the NHL because he, in some regard, represents an actual crossover star for the sport. His public profile far exceeds that of many far more talented players, which leaves the league in a somewhat uncertain position – do they marginalize a popular figure because he doesn’t play their game their way or do they embrace him and his considerable baggage?

Avery himself has weighed in on similar topics. “Our commissioner hasn't realized that he needs to probably do a better job of marketing the game and certainly some of the players in it,” he said in 2008. “Nobody cares about [Calgary Flames player] Jarome Iginla and guys like that. They're just not exciting enough. They don't bring enough to the game.”

While the league has certainly experienced a dynamic rebirth in the wake of a crippling lockout that caused them to miss the 2004-2005 season – the first time a major professional North American sports league has been forced to do so – there has been an ongoing debate about how the league should be packaged and sold to new fans and the general public. The league’s television deal with ESPN has long since expired, and although their recent deal with NBC will help, hockey has remained the outsider among the so-called “big four” of American sports.

“Well, I guess the question is, is negative publicity good? I don't think so,” Holland commented in 2008. “With the Internet and as the way the world has evolved, especially since the early '90s, I think everybody wants positive publicity. I think what we're all looking for is positive publicity and I don't think that negative publicity is what we're looking for.” Holland’s sentiment, it seems, is one shared by many throughout the NHL—a sport long-accused of preaching to its own (mostly) Canadian choir of passionate supporters.

The league continues to market its most-skilled players, and not wrongly so. Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin is a prolific, dynamic talent—much of the league’s coverage on ESPN comes when he’s scored highlight-reel goals. Sidney Crosby—finally returned from ten months away from the game due to concussions—is equally transcendent. But perhaps the league’s outlandish characters and idiosyncrasies can and should play a more vital role in bringing it to a wider audience. ESPN’s Bill Simmons recently purchased Los Angeles Kings season tickets and declared, “I have never not enjoyed myself at an NHL game.” Now, more than ever, the league has a chance to move from the margins, and although more traditional players like Iginla have been at times unfairly scapegoated, they may not represent the league’s most marketable assets.

In May 2011, Avery, who the Rangers rescued from Dallas purgatory in 2009, used his growing crossover appeal to make another powerful statement, recording a video for New Yorkers for Marriage Equality. Wearing a pair of fashionable horn-rimmed glasses, he states: “I’m Sean Avery, and I’m a New Yorker for marriage equality.” The Times called him “one of only a few active athletes in American team sports to voice support for gay rights[…]believed to be the first in New York to publicly advocate for same-sex marriage.”

“People have been calling me names for 10 years just because I like to wear nice suits,” Avery told the Times in May. Todd Reynolds, a prominent NHL agent at Uptown Sports Management, came out strongly against Avery’s stance, tweeting, “Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage’. Legal or not, it will always be wrong.” Later, Reynolds told Canada’s TSN that he believed a “silent majority” around the league agreed with him. “They call me a f*g, and I laugh,” Avery told Newsweek in 2008. “It's so narrow-minded and stereotypical.”

After a preseason game on September 26, Avery chastised Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds for using the same anti-gay slur against him that cost Kobe Bryant $100,000 this past April. What was most jarring was not the fact that Simmonds had used the word in the first place (if Washington Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau showed us anything during HBO’s 24/7 it’s that hockey is a mouthy sport), but rather that the league’s disciplinary committee ruled that there was “insufficient video evidence” to fine or suspend Simmonds. “Since there are conflicting accounts of what transpired on the ice, we have been unable to substantiate with the necessary degree of certainty what was said and by whom,” Colin Campbell, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of hockey operations, explained.

But even with places like ESPN blurcle-ing Simmonds’s mouth in subsequent coverage, it was apparent to anyone who watched the video what he was saying. Simmonds’s slur and the league’s inaction reflects a larger anxiety in sport regarding male sexuality. Simply put, it appears that the league was not interested in standing behind one of its players, because supporting him, it seemed, might mean something else within the larger conversation. In a poll, 44.1% of respondents said that racial and homophobic taunts were acceptable within a game setting to antagonize opponents.

Simmonds, who is black, was about to make a shootout attempt earlier that week against Detroit when a banana was thrown from the stands and landed on the ice. Similar incidents happen far too often in European soccer leagues, but this incident on this night in London, Ontario, where the game was played, was a very painful one for the mostly white league. Almost immediately, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rightly condemned the action. “We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game. The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.”

Only a few days later, though, Avery was not afforded anywhere near the same treatment from the league office. “If that happened, that is just so embarrassing and the league should not tolerate it," Toronto GM Brian Burke, who became hockey’s most powerful advocate for the LGBT community after his son Brendan came out in 2007, said. “That should be treated on the same level as a racially charged incident. It's the same level of offensiveness and inappropriateness.”

But instead, the NHL’s blatant inaction felt more like an administrative buck-passing from a league that has become far too concerned with image-consciousness and the marketing of a class of often-droll non-celebrity. The league’s seemingly apolitical silence on Simmonds’s slur is, itself, an inherently political one, and it speaks volumes.

Three days before the start of the 2011 season, the Rangers waived Avery, sending him to the team’s AHL affiliate in Hartford. “We have better players than Sean Avery,” coach John Tortorella said at the time. The team meandered to a 4-3-3 start, where they were drastically outshot, looked sluggish, out of sync, and uninspired. It’s fair to conclude that their listlessness on-ice can be attributed to their odd start—after a European preseason tour, the team played 5 straight road games to open the season while renovations wrapped on their arena. But, at the same time, fans trumpeted their disapproval of the team’s roster constitution with banners hanging from the Garden’s rafters on October 27, calling for Avery’s return.

Giving in to fan pressure and searching for a spark, the team recalled Avery on Halloween. “Sean is bringing something that no other players have in the league,” Lundqvist remarked. The team promptly won its next seven games, and although Avery’s impact on-ice has been minimal, Lundqvist, who is a friend of Avery’s, told the New York Daily News that things are “more normal” around the locker room as the team braces for another long season in the headlines. This year, the team plays in the NHL’s annual Winter Classic showcase outdoor game on January 2 and will be featured on HBO’s 24/7 program leading up to one of the biggest days on the NHL calendar. This should give Avery even more of the spotlight, which he’s sure to hog one way or another.

At the same time, though, Avery has found minutes extremely hard to come by this year and has been scratched the last five games, including Tuesday’s meeting with Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. Although the team is 13-4-1 since Avery’s recall, his minutes have declined steadily, and he’ll sit, it seems, for the foreseeable future. His replacement? Erik Christensen—a shootout specialist whose otherwise unremarkable game is more in line with NHL tradition.

With the weekly media spectacle of Tim Tebow, a Christ-like figure who rises (relatively speaking) each Sunday preaching hard work and spawning internet meme-icry, religious allegory is present more than ever in how we think about sport. Each game pits good against evil as our chosen gladiators go to battle. On his best days, Sean Avery has always been a player able to succeed just enough for fans to overlook an open rebellion against the game of hockey itself.

With Tebow’s idol facing a death sentence, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate offered Jesus Christ a Passover-tradition loophole—the crowd could choose a prisoner to set free rather than face execution. The mob clamored for Barabbas, a notorious criminal, to be pardoned and Christ was sent to his death. As choruses of, “We want Avery! We want Avery!” rained down from the Garden rafters during the home opener loss to the Maple Leafs, I couldn’t help but wonder if the fans knew exactly what they were asking for or, for that matter, cared.


John Vilanova