Downsizing Sean Avery

He’s quiet now. But has the NHL really tamed its bad boy?

Sean Avery isn’t doing interviews, but that doesn’t mean he wants to keep quiet. It’s been three months since hockey’s enfant terrible put his NHL career in jeopardy by stepping up to a microphone in Calgary and mocking the Flames’ Dion Phaneuf for dating what Avery described as “my sloppy seconds.” The tasteless remark—an allusion to Avery’s ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert—cost him his job with the Dallas Stars, who banished the left-winger to the league’s anger management program and made clear their intentions to cut him loose. Now he’s in the minors, on a last-chance audition with the New York Rangers’ farm team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, and not surprisingly, the Rangers have slapped him with a gag order. Even when I drive down to hardscrabble Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and ask nicely, Avery regretfully declines.

But his desire to speak is clear. And where Avery has a will, Avery will find a way. So when my BlackBerry pings two nights later, at 1:24 a.m., I’m not entirely surprised to find a text message from the man himself, apologizing for “not having much to say the other night” and advising me to listen to a Radiohead tune, 15 Step. If he means for the lyrics to reflect his personal narrative, he’s made a good choice. The song is a meditation on mistakes and frustration and the sort of regret one feels at one’s unfulfilled potential. “How come I end up where I started?” it asks. “How come I end up where I went wrong?” The beat is halting and there’s not much melody, but it does include a solemn promise: “I won’t take my eyes off the ball again.”

This week, as Avery makes his return to the NHL with the Rangers, the countdown begins on how long he can keep his eye on the ball—or, in his case, the puck. Properly deployed, he can be a highly effective on-ice weapon, generating offence while driving opponents to team-wide distractions. In past seasons with the Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings, he’s used this combination of abrasiveness and skill to rack up 68 goals in 402 games. Small wonder, then, that Rangers GM Glen Sather decided to take a flyer on the 28-year-old, plucking him off waivers knowing that Dallas would have to pick up half of his salary. For fans, though, the questions remain. Can he play to the level he once did? Can he downsize his personality to suit the hidebound sport of hockey?

If his time in the minors is anything to go by, the qualities that make him useful on the ice remain intact. During the game in Wilkes-Barre last week, he looked more irritating than ever, dominating play during many shifts while refusing to be goaded into penalties. Three times opponents ran him into the boards of the Wachovia Arena, only to watch him pop up with that insouciant smile and skate lightly away. In the first period alone, he slashed the Wilkes-Barre goalie and chirped happily at the home team’s bench, sending the 6,000-odd fans into a full-throated roar of “Avery sucks!” To top it all off, he then scored a goal, pinwheeling past defenceman Ben Lovejoy late in the first period and wiring a shot into the top corner.

For a guy who has spent the past five years dating starlets and walking red carpets, Avery looked happily oblivious to the humiliation of playing in a hockey backwater. He grinned at the anthem singer who held the “land of the freeeeeee” as long as his lungs could last, and looked at home with the 19- and 20-year-olds in his cinder-lock dressing room. “Just f–king two-hand him!” Avery was overheard advising a fresh-faced teammate following Hartford’s 5-1 victory, referring to an unnamed opponent. The high spirits may be due in part to the fact he was still pulling down an NHL salary (with a grey cashmere coat, tailored slacks and patent leather shoes shined to a high glow, he was probably the best-dressed man in Luzerne County, Penn.). Still, Ken Gernander, Hartford’s coach, was pleased with what he saw. “Sean needed to show he can play that hard gritty game without being a distraction for the rest of the guys,” he said. “I think he’s done that.”

Whether Avery can shrink his outsized persona enough to suit the league’s higher-ups is a whole other question. He’s never made a secret of his contempt for the sport’s ingrained conservatism. In December 2007, he raised nationalist hackles on this side of the border by saying he disliked “hockey-obsessed Canadians”—a statement well-nigh apostasy coming from a kid from Pickering, Ont. A year later, he rankled league officials by mocking their approach to marketing, which downplays controversy and personalities in favour of feel-good storylines. Gary Bettman, he said in a dismissive reference to the NHL commissioner, “sucks at marketing.”

At the same time, Avery seems determined to burst the sport’s macho stereotypes, an impulse that seized him a few years back while he was playing in Los Angeles. Like many pro athletes, he drifted into celebrity circles, partying with stars, dating models and generally consorting with folks who are more preoccupied with glamour than goals or assists. After being traded to New York, he proudly declared an interest in women’s fashion, and openly pursued work in the industry. When he landed an internship at Vogue magazine last summer, he was celebrated in the manner of the proverbial talking dog: everyone was so impressed he could speak that no one listened to what he had to say. Avery revelled in the notoriety. In one interview on ESPN, he told a fanciful-sounding story about how, as a child, he played with dolls he stole from his babysitter.

The real impact of this sort of publicity on the game is debatable. While the Fashion Week set went gaga, hard-core hockey fans appear unmoved. “What is that guy, some kind of fag?” sniffed a U.S. border guard outside Buffalo when told Maclean’s was doing a story on Avery. It’s the sort of response that Avery takes great glee in deflating—even as he traffics in such crudities himself. But before plunging back into the fan-baiting, rule-bending, authority-tweaking persona he once gloried in, he’d do well to consider the deeper message of that Radiohead song. Beneath those themes of regret, return and renewal, after all, runs an undercurrent of doom that, in his case, might be read as a warning: “15 steps,” the lyrics caution, “then a sheer drop.”