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THE HOCKEY world is a generally forgiving place. It is willing to embrace Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet despite his 2007 conviction for conspiracy to promote gambling, and it continues to employ hulking Calgary forward Todd Bertuzzi, even though he pleaded guilty to an on-ice criminal assault of Steve Moore, an '04 attack that fractured the Colorado forward's neck and ended his career. Live and let live, eh? The quality of mercy is not strained, except in the relationship between Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery and the league that now considers him a pariah. � Avery did not place a bet, drive drunk, injure anyone or wield a weapon other than a sharp tongue. If scabrous speech were a felony, NHL teams would be forced to skate three-on-three.
So why can't hockey forgive him?
Avery didn't talk himself out of a job, and possibly a career, last month simply because of his unseemly choice of words—which, like almost everything he does, were orchestrated for maximum effect. True, if Avery had simply labeled actress Elisha Cuthbert, who is dating the Flames' Dion Phaneuf, and model Rachel Hunter, engaged to the Kings' Jarret Stoll, as, say, "ex-girlfriends" instead of dipping into his frat-boy lexicon for a gauche and disrespectful phrase ("sloppy seconds," if you haven't heard), then he wouldn't be in hockey purgatory. This season, anyway. Those words were simply the tipping point, earning Avery a lifetime achievement award for bad judgment.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman banned the winger for six games and ordered an anger-management evaluation. The Stars subsequently decided to honor Avery's contract but otherwise sever ties with him. (A good thing: Dallas was 8-11-4 with Avery but 9-5-1, through Sunday, without him.) He had signed with the team in July but in 23 games had already worn out a tepid welcome by offending the sensibilities of his coach, Dave Tippett, his team and its owner, Thomas Hicks.
Even worse than his scripted misogyny, Avery was guilty of hockey's deadliest sin: being a lousy teammate. There can be room for personal agendas in other sports—think Terrell Owens with the Cowboys—but hockey takes a dim view of square pegs in their perfectly rounded holes. The ethos is different. Unlike baseball clubhouses, where players sit facing their stalls, or football locker rooms, where players are segregated by position, a hockey dressing room is designed so all players face toward the center, gazing at one another. Avery did not look at his teammates in Dallas. Between periods he would often sit by himself in the hallway, headphones on, a citizen of Planet Sean. When Avery was in the dressing room, according to Stars veteran Mike Modano, he was often on his phone, discussing a potential book deal or his movie project, a romantic comedy based on the life of the only NHL player to spend his summer as an intern at Vogue. ( Avery handled a variety of assignments including assisting on fashion shoots and "guest editing" on mensvogue.com during his time at the magazine last year.)
Avery wore shorts with his sport coats to preseason games because, Modano said, "he didn't feel he could express himself if he dressed the same as everybody [else].... He just seemed unwilling to do what we were all asked to do, on and off the ice. He wanted to march to his own beat." Avery was the iconoclast clown, throwing spitballs at hockey's ways.
His most public transgressions in a seven-year career with the Red Wings, Kings, Rangers and Stars—the verbal swipes at French-Canadian players, a confrontation with an L.A. assistant coach, a profane blowup at an Anaheim broadcaster, the cartoonish harassment of an opposing goalie in the postseason, the obscenities showered on fans in Nashville and Boston—merely add up to a Sean Avery starter kit. "[After each incident] you say, 'Nah, that's not really anything. No big deal,'" says Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who had Avery for 55 games in 2006--07. "But it builds and builds."
THE ONLY thing breaking Avery's fall is a fat wallet. After a season and a half with the Rangers—he had 23 goals and 22 mentions on the New York Post 's gossipy Page Six—he signed a four-year, $15.5 million free-agent deal with Dallas. Avery, 28, will continue to earn his full salary this season. If, miraculously, an NHL team picks him up after the Stars place him on recallable waivers when his psychological treatment concludes, Dallas and Avery's new team would each pay half of his remaining 2008--09 salary. More likely the Stars will buy him out after the season for two thirds of the $12 million he would still be owed. Thus, Avery is guaranteed $11.5 million. "After he signed, I told him that now that he'd gotten the big contract, he could take it down a notch and just go out and play hockey," said Red Wings forward Kris Draper, Avery's friend and former teammate. "Unfortunately that's not what happened."