Sean Avery, Hockey's Latest Bad Boy

Sean Avery is by far the most hated player in the National Hockey League, according to a player poll. But he has helped the New York Rangers to a surprising 3-1 lead over the favored Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And a little hockey talk now. Tonight, the New York Rangers can eliminate the Washington Capitals from the NHL playoffs but they will have to do it without forward, Sean Avery.

The Rangers deliberately scratched Avery from the lineup before tonight's game due to behavior in the last game. Avery incurred two late penalties for extreme aggression. In one case, he bloodied a rival player. With Avery in the penalty box, that left the Rangers one man short during the final stretch of a tight game.

Sean Avery was once voted by his peers to be the most hated player in the league. He's an unusual personality, some say an acquired taste. Off the ice, Avery has interned with Vogue magazine, but on the ice, the league has passed rules banning some of his disruptive actions.

First, a warning here. The story you're about to hear includes a crude comment from Avery, one that earned him a suspension.

NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA: Jarome Iginla, the explosive captain of the Calgary Flames, is so well-regarded that his fellow players have said he would make a good president or prime minister. Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils goaltender, earlier this year set the all-time record for wins. In this, his 16th season, he's still considered a top goalie.

This story is not about either of them nor any of the other great athletes or people in the NHL. Most of the sporting press, which covers hockey rarely and only when there is a hook, think of Iginla and Brodeur as great players. We think of Sean Avery as great copy. Here he is doing what he does Wednesday night as described on the MSG Network.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Unidentified Announcer: Avery got a terrible penalty. He turned, and he whacked a Washington player right across the face with his stick.

PESCA: A whack with a stick, a smack on the head, a spear in the ribs, a taunt in the face. These aren't byproducts of Sean Avery's game, this is Sean Avery's game.

Former NHL goalie Darren Pang is an analyst for the Canadian sports network TSN.

Mr. DARREN PANG (Analyst, TSN): Sean Avery is an agitator. He goes by you, he suddenly throws an elbow, he gets your stick somewhere between your legs. He goes to players that he knows that he can get in their kitchen and rattle a few pans around.

PESCA: Always known as an annoyance, Avery pioneered a new form last year. He faced goalie Martin Brodeur, waved a stick, yelled at him and behaved in a manner so odd and unprecedented that the league passed a specific rule banning such actions.

The next season, as a member of the Dallas Stars, he attempted to insult an opponent through the media. In this case, he also dragged a former girlfriend into the act.

Mr. SEAN AVERY (Professional Hockey Player): I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about, but enjoy the game tonight.

PESCA: This was no off-the-cuff remark. Avery called the cameras over and issued his derogatory declaration with a smirk on his face that said, aren't I a clever boy?

The league didn't think so, suspending him for his remarks. The Stars didn't think so, cutting him loose as soon as possible. Former NHL head coach Pierre McGuire is now an analyst for NBC.

Mr. PIERRE MCGUIRE (Hockey Analyst, NBC): He was a terrible teammate and not a great person when he was down in Dallas, and they just could not stand him, and they wanted him gone.

PESCA: There was one team that would take him, the Rangers. Maybe it was something about this city where Avery could give tours of his Manhattan apartment to style section reporters or intern with Vogue magazine. So far, the experiment is working out because for all of Avery's faults, he's a skilled player who can hit and score. Pierre McGuire says so far, Rangers coach John Tortorella is successfully walking that razor's edge or skate's blade with Avery.

Mr. MCGUIRE: He does a lot of things extremely well. The one thing he's learning, I think, now that he didn't have before is he's learning how to be a better teammate. Before, he was more of an individual. Now I think he's become more of a teammate.

PESCA: In the Rangers' first two wins against the Capital, Avery was helping his team, inducing more penalties than he committed, but the Rangers' last win came despite him. Brett Hull, his former general manager in Dallas, has said that Avery could be good, but he's like the Green Goblin, he became evil.

The Rangers aren't allowing Avery to say much of anything. They're not permitting interviews, and his outside publicist, a rarity in the NHL, is also not booking interviews during the playoffs. They're all hoping to contain the selfish, distracting, self-immolating Avery for at least a few more games.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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