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Sean Avery, rebel without applause, is on double-secret probation. � The new general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, Dean Lombardi, aping Animal House's Dean Wormer, pronounced the sentence last summer after the team re-signed Avery to a one-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, who became the most hated player in the game--at times, even in his own dressing room--has been a good boy ever since. � Well, pretty much. � Although he has assumed his customary place among the NHL's penalty-minute leaders--he has topped the league for each of the last two seasons--his malfeasance has left the Kings shorthanded just nine times this year. And although he still jabs opponents on the ice with sly and scabrous comments that have been scripted for maximum effect ("You didn't deserve your gold medal," he once told Eric Lindros, who underperformed on Canada's team in 2002), Avery now clearly seems more 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 power plays, staking a 6--1 lead. If ever there were an engraved invitation for hockey 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, you could see the frustration in Sean, but he held it together," says Kings coach Marc Crawford. "Our trainers talked to the refs afterward, and both said, 'Boy, has he changed.'"
"It's almost like [being] an alcoholic," Avery says. "I don't think alcoholics can have one drink, then take a couple of days off. I've got to keep myself in check, or it'll be a snowball effect. At the point I'm pissed off, I want to go off the deep end, and make [someone] pay for something, somehow. In the past the voice [in my head] was saying, 'All right. Should I grab this player or that player? What can I do to blow them up and make them want to kill me even more next game? I don't think I can do that any more."
Mr. 12-Step Program, wearing a black polo and black slacks, sits at a corner table of a hotel 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 here at all. The Kings wanted it restricted to the rink, before relenting. Giving Avery a forum has been like handing a grenade to a monkey. Maybe nothing will happen, but....
A disciple of the Brett Hull school of outspokenness--in 2001--02, as a rookie, Avery lived with Hull in Detroit, which ex--Red Wings teammate Brendan Shanahan says "is like giving a guy who has a whole lot of guns a whole lot of bullets"--he has, at various times, called Phoenix captain Shane Doan "the NHL's most overrated player," trashed Nashville star Paul Kariya as "a diver" and derided Anaheim center Andy McDonald as "an arrogant little midget."
"There's a time and a place for everything," says Kings captain Mattias Norstrom. "Last year it was always the time and always the place for Sean." In a sport that accepts a level of bad behavior, Avery forged a new frontier in 2005--06 when he: a) belittled French Canadian players by saying that then Coyote defenseman Denis Gauthier, who had leveled Avery's teammate Jeremy Roenick with a check, was "typical of most French guys in our league, with a visor on, running around and playing tough and not back[ing] anything up"; b) was accused by then Oiler Georges Laraque, who is black, of calling him a "monkey" ( Avery denies it); c) ridiculed a $1,000 fine he got for diving and excoriated the NHL executive who levied it; d) screamed profanely at Anaheim broadcaster Brian Hayward in a dressing room ("You're an embarrassment.... You're a horses--- announcer") days after Hayward had suggested that Avery "needed a beating" for cross-checking a Ducks rookie 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 with Kings assistant Mark Hardy, who thought Avery was dogging it in practice; and f) was yanked as an analyst from Sportsnet, a Canadian network, after the NHL expressed concerns.
"It's never been medically proven," Avery says, "but I obviously suffer from some sort of--you know, I don't think this is a cop-out like a lot of kids use nowadays--but there's some sort of ADD going on."
Lombardi thinks the acting up, or acting out, is a shortcut to the attention Avery craves. The truth is, Avery's game might be enough to get notice. Buried beneath the verbiage, camouflaged by the penalties, is this: Avery can play. "Amazingly talented," 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 of publicists he employs. (Even Wayne Gretzky, when he played, didn't have a personal publicist; Avery says they help "get myself out there in a more positive manner.") Crawford has been generous with ice time, often bumping up Avery, who can play all three forward positions, to the second line and the power play. Avery's also a strong penalty killer. "His ability level is high for our group," says Crawford of his team, which at week's end was 11th in the Western Conference. "But his issues are the same. They revolve around focus."
The Kings have given Avery three basic rules: respect the game, respect the officials and respect your teammates. Historically, the last has proved the most problematic, almost from the moment he bounded into the dressing room of a Red Wings team with eight surefire Hall of Famers and announced, "Call me 'A-Dog.'" ("You're no dog," a teammate replied. "You're a puppy," which became Avery's first NHL nickname.) Former Detroit goalie Manny Legace recalls captain Steve Yzerman and Shanahan "running him ragged. Sean aggravated a few guys. But we were a veteran team. Mostly we thought he was hilarious."
When Detroit traded 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 to Roenick, one problem was teammates' jealousy of Avery's life, which now includes his girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert (24, The Girl Next Door). "Guys didn't like that he lived among the Hollywood people," says Roenick, an Avery booster. "Here was a guy who wasn't established who was trying 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 in and say 'Good morning.' Your teammates don't have to like you, but they have to respect you. Sometimes the way Sean acted, he didn't deserve either."