The NHL Will Miss Sean Avery

The New York Rangers waived Sean Avery, the divisive NHL winger, yesterday morning and if the transaction proves to be the end of his NHL playing days, then it is truly a sad day for the league. In a sport that religiously fears change and creativity, Avery stood out as an innovator as much as an agitator, and in a league whose culture celebrates the status quo more than any other pro sport, Avery was always considered a pariah. While never a fan of Avery himself, as a fan of the sport who has great concern for what it has become, I’ll miss what he brought to hockey’s discourse, and regret what the NHL could be like if the league would embrace its Sean Averys.

Avery’s history of suspensions and controversy highlight hockey’s hatred for innovation and its insulated old boys’ culture. It was not long into Avery’s NHL career before he upset the hockey powers. Following just one year with the Detroit Red Wings, the team that drafted him, Avery was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Soon after, Wings GM Ken Holland told the press that he didn’t think Avery “respected the game.” This was because Avery played the role of the agitator, along the lines of Kenny Linseman, Esa Tikkanen, Clause Lemieux, and countless others who never received the wrath of the hockey elite that Avery did.

Once in LA, Avery became enamoured with the celebrity culture, and began dating a series of Hollywood starlets. He also made appearances on several TV shows including MadTV, Punk’d, and TRL, while also being featured in People magazine’s Sexiest People Alive issue. This would have made him a tabloid star, and media darling, in the NFL, the NBA, or MLB, but in the cloistered world of the NHL, it did not jibe with their good ole boy, salt of the earth, farm boy from Saskatchewan star system. The NHL, as it always seems to, missed out on a great marketing opportunity, one that would have provided some exposure to the celeb-hungry public in the US that the sport hasn’t had since Wayne Gretzky was sold to the Kings, and married the sixth lead from Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach. Instead, it furthered Avery’s journey to becoming the NHL’s most hated man. Literally. There was a poll.

During the 2004-2005 NHL lockout Avery was publically and privately berated for his comments towards NHLPA head Bob Goodenow, saying, “”Bob thought he was bigger than he was. Bob brainwashed players like me. We burned a year for nothing. We didn’t win anything. We didn’t prove anything. We didn’t get anything. We wasted an entire season.” Of course, years later we know that Avery was right, and that the lockout was a waste of a year that did nothing for the sport, except maintain its place in US culture somewhere between Arena Football and Llama Dressage.

In 2005, after Denis Gauthier, a notorious headhunter, gave Jeremy Roenick a concussion with a cheap shot hit, Avery was quoted as saying “I think it was typical of most French guys in our league with a visor on, running around and playing tough and not back anything up.” Don Cherry calls French Canadians horrible names, when he can actually pronounce their names that is, but has never received a fraction of the vitriol that Avery received. He was forced to apologize, and though the prejudicial generalization was uncalled for, the manner in which players like Gauthier carry themselves and the attention to headshots was both relevant and ahead of its time.

Later that year, Avery received a fine for diving and was labeled a repeat offender by the league. In his comments protesting the fact that the CBA did not allow for players to appeal such fines for diving, league VP Colin Campbell said of Avery “Mr. Avery has besmirched the reputation of all NHL players, coaches, general managers and owners who, collectively, have been successful in providing a more entertaining game for our fans.” This is the same Colin Campbell known throughout the game by GMs, players, journalists, and general hangers on as Colie, whose stewardship as the NHL executive charged with maintaining order and safety within a very fast, and at times, very violent sport, resulted in an era of concussions and superfluous on-ice violence. Who damaged the game more during their tenure, Avery or Campbell? It would be difficult to argue the former, and Brendan Shanahan has recently replaced the latter in a move celebrated throughout the sport.

Many incidents of notoriety and infamy followed, including run-ins with former NHL goaltender and current broadcaster Brian Hayward, Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy, enforcers Georges Laraque and Todd Fedoruk, David Clarkson, Martin Brodeur, Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker, a trade to the Rangers, and continuing relationship with medium-profile actresses. It’s worth noting that Laraque made and Fedoruk makes their NHL livings as pugilists and not players, their combined career goals equaling those of Avery; that Hardy was once arrested and charged for sexually assaulting his daughter; that Brodeur left his wife for his sister-in-law; and the incident with Blake and Tucker (where Avery was accused of invoking Blake’s cancer in an on-ice taunt) had to be retracted by the reporting radio station only upon being served with a libel suit by Avery. Varying degrees of morality at play here, yes, but in each incident the hockey community, by and large, put its support behind whoever wasn’t named Sean Avery.

What is perhaps he most apt example of Sean Avery as an innovator in a sport of close-minded and dated thinking occurred on April 13, 2008 during a playoff game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. On a Rangers 5-on-3 power play, Avery stood above the crease in front of Devils goalie Brodeur, put his stick in Brodeur’s eye line and waved his hands in the goalie’s face. Well within the rules, but against the unwritten rules of the hockey community’s self-appointed moral governors. The play itself was genius, and if the Devils wanted Avery to stop they should have cross-checked him in the head as is the sport’s way. Instead, the community cried foul, Don Cherry called him a jerk (once again, raising the level of intelligent discourse), and the next day the league instituted the Sean Avery Rule outlawing such antics. This would be like the NBA outlawing Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s skyhook, baseball eschewing the knuckleball, or the NFL putting an end to the fumblerooski. But this is the NHL, whose last innovation was the forward pass.

What followed that playoff season, one in which the Rangers 4-1 series’ victory over the Devils greatly benefitted from Avery’s inspired play, likely put any chance of a happy marriage between Avery and his sport permanently to rest. That summer Avery joined Vogue magazine as an intern, with reports that “Avery is a self-confessed clothes horse 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.” He was widely ridiculed by the community, one that fears not concussions or drug abuse or post-career depression, but rather the appearance that one of its own is anything less than the norm, anything less than a man’s man, drinking beer and growing beards, spending offseason’s at the rodeo, or chasing broads.

After that, Avery unfortunately became almost a caricature of himself, perhaps tired of being the leagues whipping boy, a result of the NHL’s use and abuse of him. He signed an ill-fated four-year, $15.5 million contract with the Dallas Stars and never meshed with the team’s culture and played only 23 games for the club. He called Jarmone Iginla “boring” (well, he is), Stars captain Mike Modano called Avery an embarrassment (Modano appeared in the first Mighty Ducks film, you know – glass houses and all that), Brodeur would only refer to him as “the Vogue intern” (okay, that’s pretty funny), he was suspended for 6 games for implying that Calgary Flames’ defenceman Dion Phaneuf enjoyed Avery’s “sloppy seconds” (Phaneuf was dating Avery’s ex, Elisha Cuthbert – kind of funny, if not very creative), and eventually he was sent to the AHL before making it back to the NHL with the Rangers.

During this past May, Avery came out publicly in support of same sex marriage, and recorded a video for the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality campaign. The video prompted Uptown Sports Management, an agency that represents around a dozen NHL players, to post on their Twitter feed its disappointment in 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.” There were no sanctions from the NHL placed upon the agency, no public support from teammates, only a brief spatter of Twitter support. The NHL does not encourage its membership to have political views, or any views for that matter. Once again, Avery should have been promoted and celebrated. But he wasn’t, because hockey is for men, men with wives and children and tractors and bruised knuckles that like vanilla ice cream and country music and own Ford F150s.

This preseason, in a game versus the Philadelphia Flyers, Avery was taunted with homophobic slurs by Flyers’ winger Wayne Simmonds. The incident was caught on camera, and in an era of high definition television a blind man could have read Simmonds’ lips. The timing was intriguing, as only a few days earlier Simmonds (who is black) had a banana peel thrown at him during the shootout of a game in London, Ontario. It was a snapshot of the league’s intolerance, of an undercurrent of quiet racism and prejudice against all things not traditionally hockey, a bi-product of it’s reluctance to embrace progress. There was no suspension for Simmonds, the NHL claiming there was insufficient evidence. Many journalists defended the NHL’s decision, clinging to the old trope of what’s said on the ice stays on the ice, and that it’s a man’s game. That’s the sport’s way. The NHL is quick with excuses, and slow on progress. And it hates anyone who stands out as an individual. And it hated Sean Avery.

Innovation is the lifeblood of sport, and while Sean Avery was not the most graceful of innovators, the lesson remains that the Sean Avery Rule and the NHL’s failure to embrace a uniquely marketable individual, is indicative of a sport that stubbornly refuses to foster and encourage creativity. The NHL would prefer that each game was made up entirely of Sutters, teams of 25 Albertan farm boys who love their mothers and give a 110% for three full periods, always willing to drop the gloves, leaving it all on the ice. It’s a league that celebrates cliché, and shuns ingenuity. It’s that thinking that keeps the sport from achieving the popularity that it’s natural grace and beauty deserve, that will always fill arenas in Winnipeg but not Atlanta, and will never make its way to the forefront of popular North American culture. Sean Avery was a marketer’s dream, in a sport devoid of them. He was a Toronto-boy, good looking, with grit and a diversity of interests who was never shy in front of a microphone. The NHL won’t miss Sean Avery, but it should.

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