Pot-stirrer Avery gets burned
Sean Avery's main transgression was the public nature of his puerile remark
Avery's words were calculated, but were only ammo for hockey's detractors
A suspension may still Avery's tongue, but not his brand of on-ice agitation
SI.com's Michael Farber is traveling, but he weighed in by phone on Sean Avery's indefinite suspension for making a derogatory public statement about former girlfriends -- in particular, Elisha Cuthbert, who is dating Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames.
SI.com: Were you surprised by the suspension?
Farber: The stunning part is the alacrity with which the league moved. I'd have to check that Todd Bertuzzi was suspended as quickly [for his devastating hit on Colorado's Steve Moore in 2004]. This seems awfully close to a world record.
SI.com: Do you think it was a bit of an overreaction?
Farber: I have no problem with the suspension as long as Gary Bettman is not shy about using that detrimental conduct clause in the future.
SI.com: Do you think Bettman acted quickly to avoid a bloodbath on the ice in Calgary last night?
Farber: It's possible. Avery had already tugged on Jarome Iginla's cape as well. Certainly it's not unreasonable to think an incident would have gone on. Actually, Elisha Cuthbert should have punched his lights out.
SI.com: Was what Avery said really that bad? It seems mild compared to a lot of things that are said publicly in sports these days.
Farber: What Avery said was stupid and vile. But he's in trouble for two words: sloppy seconds. If he had said "ex-girlfriend", we wouldn't be having this discussion. George Carlin had his seven words you can't say on television, now we know the two things you can't say in the NHL.
SI.com: Don't players say vile stuff to each other all the time?
Farber: The language of the NHL is not for the faint of heart. It is cruel, it can be misogynist and it can border on racist. Ethnicities can be attacked. This is part of the gamesmanship on the ice. What Avery says is never haphazard. He told me that he actually researches and studies opponents to see what soft spots they might have, and he rehearses his material. This was clearly rehearsed. But a lot of what Sean Avery does is a cry for attention. He's the only NHL player I know who has his own publicist. But sometimes I wonder if it's a cry for help as well.
SI.com: Some people argue that Avery draws attention to the NHL, so something like this is good for a league that needs publicity.
Farber: I think it's terrible for the league. It's demeaning, it's misogynist. I'm not of the school that believes all publicity is good publicity. Things like this reinforce the caveman stereotype. It wasn't good for Zinedine Zidane in soccer. It's not going to be good for Avery in hockey. It's just foolish. I'm shocked that so many people are interested. The only time anyone seems to care is when a Marty McSorley, a Bertuzzi or an Avery has an incident. There are people out there who want to dismiss hockey and Sean Avery has made that easy. It's in the spirit of protecting the image of the game that Bettman acted.
SI.com: It's often said, though, that league's stars are too bland.
Farber: Sometimes the league has felt that way. A former league vice president once told me, "What we need is a Darth Vader." Well, now you have a Darth Vader. Be careful what you wish for.
Si.com: The Dallas Stars haven't been too happy with Avery this season.
Farber: Clearly there have been issues in Dallas. I've talked to Mike Modano and Marty Turco and they aren't great fans. You can understand why the Stars brought Avery in, though. He was largely effective in New York, but he can't be effective on a team where he's not welcome. There were teammates in Los Angeles who wanted to kill him and one, I'm told, tried by having a fight with him in the dressing room.
SI.com: Is Avery more trouble than he's worth to a team?
Farber: In Detroit, it was easy because he was a kid, he was amusing. When he first arrived [in 2001], he walked into the dressing room and said, "All right people, A-Dog is here!" That's how he got his nickname "The Puppy." In LA, he upset a lot of teammates. In New York, he upset fewer because he was a better player. In the culture of the Stars, he didn't fit. We spoke on the phone two weeks ago and he said, "Games like the one in Boston are good for me, they get my blood going." [Avery was at the center of a brawl-filled game with the Bruins on Nov. 1.] The Stars looked at him like he had a third eye. Is Dallas going to walk away from him now? I don't know.
SI.com: What should the league ultimately do with him?
Farber: They should suspend him and make very clear what the language is that he can and can't use. If the league is really serious about stopping this kind of stuff -- and you don't want to turn referees into Big Brothers -- they should be more vigilant about what is said on the ice. They've already cracked down on ethnic slurs. The use of "Frog" has been tolerated for a long time, but the league has jumped in when it has become a black-white issue. The difference here is that instead of saying something bad on the ice, Avery said it on TV. The league is upset with the public nature of it, the brazen, puerile display rather than those two words themselves.
SI.com: Do you think this suspension will have a deterrent effect on his behavior?
I think he will be more judicious about what he says publicly for cameras. Would it change him essentially? Not a chance. If he stopped doing that, his effectivenss would drop. This is how he thinks he's most effective. A lot of what he says is clever. One night during a game, he skated by a player on the other team who'd had one shift in the second period and said, "Hey, you a healthy scratch tonight?"
There is a value to that role, maybe not in quite the flamboyant, outlandish way that Avery does it. Milan Lucic does it in a more effective way in Boston. He torments people. Steve Begin or Maxim Lapierre fill that role In Montreal. Tampa Bay just called up Steve Downey. Avery is better than those guys. He's also a bright guy. I'm not sure he thought what he said would lead to this. He loves to stir the pot and this time the pot boiled over and burned his feet.
More on Sean Avery
Allan Muir: Stars are fed up with a divisive outcast
Arash Markazi: NHL needs Avery's publicity
Timeline: Avery's antics through the years
SI Vault: The Loud Man (11/13/06)