Broadway's golden punk
God bless 'em, where would sports be without villains? I don't mean the standard issue thugs, miscreants and chemically-enhanced opportunists who come down the sewer pipe every day. I mean the feisty players you love to hate, the ones who boil your blood and make you clench your fists while you grind a layer of enamel off your molars.
I mean a scoundrel like Sean Avery.
The NHL, which has been struggling to park its carcass on the national radar again, finds itself blessed to have a high-profile louse in high-profile playoff series against golden boy Sidney Crosby and his promising Pittsburgh Penguins.
The NHL has a long, distinguished history of abrasive characters who are otherwise known as pests, agitators, and !@#$disturbers -- cads like Claude Lemieux, Theo Fleury, Esa Tikkanen and former Islanders goalie Billy Smith, whose zest for stickwork made him Public Enemy Number One on the front page of newspapers in Edmonton after he whacked the pegs out from under Wayne Gretzky during the 1983 Stanley Cup Final. They make you want to watch, if only to get your fair share of aggravation.
Avery, the Rangers wing nut, can carry on with the best of them. He relishes being despised and has doggedly cultivated the label "Most Hated Man in Hockey" by running his yap and wielding his dukes during stops on the big stages in Detroit, L.A. and New York.
Unless you're a Rangers fan, you almost hate to admit that one of the highlights of the first round was when Avery got into Devils' goalie Martin Brodeur's kitchen, forcing the NHL to enact a rule against distraction when he stood waving his arms in Brodeur's face. (It's worth noting Brodeur's restraint, for if it had been Battlin' Billy in the crease, a team of surgeons would have labored for hours to remove a goalie stick from Avery's gullet.)
After the series concluded and the teams gathered at center ice for the customary postgame pleasantries, Brodeur snubbed Avery, leaving the Ranger to deliver the cream pie to the solemn face of the NHL's traditional handshake line: "Everyone talks about how classless I am, but I guess Fatso there just forgot to shake my hand," Avery intoned during a postgame interview.
This was a classic moment that brought to mind Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld calling referee Don Koharski a "fat pig" and urging him to "have another doughnut" during a dispute after a game in the 1988 Wales Conference finals, and Detroit's Dino Ciccarelli muttering "I can't believe I shook that guy's friggin' hand" after Lemieux sparked a near riot between the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche by boarding Kris Draper in the 1996 Western Conference finals.
But Avery is no ordinary pest. He's a weird amalgam of sneering punk and cosmopolitan dandy, having dated Elisha Cuthbert, consorted with Paris Hilton, appeared on MTV's Total Request Live, earned consideration from People magazine in its annual search for The Sexiest Man Alive. Now, he's reportedly going to be an intern at Vogue. One can easily imagine him and notorious Editrix Anna Wintour being cut from the same bolt of vinegar-scented burlap, and this latest venture into haughty couture is hardly the first by a Ranger.
In the early 1980s, center Ron Duguay of the Peter Frampton locks (not the cueball Frampton of Gieico fame) did ads for Sasson jeans, with the daring slogan Ooh La La. When one thinks of NHL and fashion in the same sentence, one's mind ordinarily conjures Don Cherry's suits by Barnum & Bailey.
Avery is just as unusual and distinctive a character. He's pugnacious, but not a one-dimensional enforcer like Pittsburgh's Georges Laraque or Minnesota's Derek Boogaard. Those guys are Frankensteins. Avery is the kid who puts the fetal pig's severed head on your lunch tray in the school cafeteria, soaps the stairs before your grandma comes down, and puts the puck in the net from time to time (15 goals, including four game-winners, this season and he was +6). Just last week, he flipped the bird at an NBC camera crew during a Rangers' practice. As the great Les Claypool sings in Golden Boy, "His arms was made of nickel and his forehead made of wood. An affidavit from the principal says, This boy ain't no damned good."
Equally unusual is that the NHL seemed to recognize the value in Avery's growing notoriety. Even though he was dragged on the carpet by Commissioner Gary Bettman and told to mind his Ps and Qs after the watch-the-birdie incident, the league reportedly sanctioned a line of Avery Rule t-shirts, duds the Commish quickly put out on the curb along with other unfortunate ideas, like those long pants the Flyers and Whalers once wore.
I understand the need to keep a lid on Avery's antics, but a little here and there can be a plus. I suspect that more than a few eyes that wouldn't ordinarily watch hockey will take a peek at the Rangers-Pens series, especially if Avery starts getting friendly with Crosby or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the slur starts to fly along with the ink and the wind from sports talk shows.
Such monkeyshines may not sit will with those who champion dignified sportsmanship at all times, but with Alex Ovechkin's infectious, glass-thumping exuberance now teeing up the Titleist at Pincus Pines, it's nice to have a four alarm jalapeno in the playoff pot. Just keep your Pepto-Bismol handy.