Forget trading him. The Stars, who don't have an American Hockey League affiliate, haven't found even a minor league team, let alone an NHL one, that wants Avery. When co--general manager Les Jackson contacted the coach of an AHL team whose parent NHL organization is known for taking on project players, he got a one-word answer: "No."
"When I was trying to move him [in 2007], only two teams were interested, the Rangers and one other," Lombardi recalls, even though Avery, playing his edgy style, had 67 points in his final season and a half with Los Angeles. "There wasn't even what I would call marginal interest, a 'we'll get back to you.' Will he get another opportunity? It's human nature to give a second chance, but [he's got] four years at a big number. [ Dolphins running back] Ricky Williams has had many chances. The difference is, he goes for a tryout, makes the team, signs, but the contract isn't guaranteed."
It's scary, but everybody knows Sean Avery
—CRAIG CONROY, Flames center
POLL YOUR average American, suggests an NHL veteran, and Avery will draw higher name recognition than any active player aside from Sidney Crosby. Avery, who declined to be interviewed for this story, retains the services of a Hollywood public relations firm, the only active NHL player known to have a nonsports publicist. For him this is a reasonable investment. According to a former teammate, Avery was at a house party in New York City last summer when an actress from a popular television show started chatting him up. She said she didn't know much about hockey, but she was mightily impressed that the NHL had made a rule just for him.
Yes, the Avery Rule. During a five-on-three power play in a first-round playoff game against New Jersey last April, Avery stood on the edge of the Devils' crease facing goalie Martin Brodeur and waved his stick repeatedly as a distraction. (Later Avery would mock the much-respected Brodeur as "fatso.") The act was aberrant and bush league, original and successful—Avery wound up scoring on the power play—32 seconds of well-considered madness that captured the essential Avery and forced a flummoxed league to do something. Quickly Avery's shadow dancing was deemed illegal, more grease for a wheel that has squeaked since 1996, when he showed up in Owen Sound to start his career as a 16-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League.
Dave Siciliano, his coach in Owen Sound, had his own Avery Rule, which he refers to as the 80/20: Siciliano devoted 80% of his time to Avery, while the other 20% went to the rest of the team. "You seemed to be dealing with something every day," says Siciliano. "He had an overzealousness and a lack of discipline that would cause rifts on the ice, at practice, on bus trips." On one trip Curtis Sanford, now a Canucks goalie, heard a scuffle at the back of the bus and wheeled in time to see captain Dan Snyder, upset by an Avery comment, being pulled off his mouthy teammate. Siciliano wanted to dump Avery, but Owen Sound G.M. Ray McKelvie recalls, "A lot of people had already gotten the idea that he wasn't a team player. It was hard to make a deal that made sense for us, until one night in Kingston he had three [goals] and three [assists]. A couple of days later [Kingston G.M. Larry Mavety] and I had a deal. Sean could get people riled up, but he was an excellent player."
By the time he reached the NHL, with Detroit in 2001--02, his reputation was entrenched: a hell-raiser with high-end speed and soft hands who could be more trouble than he was worth. With the Red Wings he was reined in as a rookie on a team leavened with future Hall of Fame players. "Mostly Sean was very endearing, like a kid brother," says Steve Yzerman, now a Detroit vice president.
But after being traded in March 2003 to the Kings, a team less secure in its identity, Avery ran amok, by hockey's standards. Even with a serendipitous do-over—he was kicked off the team with three games left in 2005--06 for refusing to participate in a drill and arguing with assistant coach Mark Hardy at practice but was allowed back after ownership replaced G.M. Dave Taylor with Lombardi that summer—he continued to roil teammates as much as opponents. He cruelly ridiculed the speech of left wing Dustin Brown, who has a slight lisp. "He was really hard on Brown, a quiet guy who just shut down," says Conroy, now with Calgary. "He didn't come out of his shell until Sean was gone."
There were dressing-room fisticuffs. Thornton and Avery had a "play fight" in Edmonton in late December 2006—it started when Avery hit Thornton with an exercise ball—and Thornton wound up breaking his wrist and missing 23 games. Lombardi, who after succeeding Taylor had announced that Avery was on "double secret probation," traded him to New York five weeks after the Thornton incident, but not before warning Rangers president Glen Sather that "you'll have him in your office once a week."
" Brett Hull criticized us when we traded Sean, saying our team was bad for Sean and bad for the game," Lombardi recalls. "Freedom of expression. How does [Hull, the Stars' co-G.M. with Jackson,] like it today? They spent $15.5 million to protect the right of free speech. Adams and Jefferson would be proud."