Once, Sean Avery was the most hated player to lace up ice skates. Now, he’s written a memoir he hopes every aspiring teenage hockey player will read. “I think there’s a lot of life lessons to be learned in this book, through mistakes that I made,” he says. Offside: My Life Crossing the Line features hitherto-unthinkable passages in which he discusses his love of Shakespeare, the value of mindfulness, and the fact that he cried during his NHL hearing for making his most infamous comment, about how Dion Phaneuf was dating his “sloppy seconds” (i.e., actress Elisha Cuthbert). He doesn’t claim to be an entirely reformed character—“I’m not even going to claim to be a good guy,” he writes—and there’s more than a hint of score-settling throughout the book. Nonetheless, Avery does want to prove he’s more than a “hate-filled wrecking ball.”
Having left the league in 2012 after 10* seasons with the Red Wings, Kings, Stars and, most notably, the Rangers, Ontario-born and –raised Avery has reinvented himself as a restaurateur, an advertising executive and, recently, an actor; he says he’ll soon be shooting “a significant role” in the new movie by director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), working title Mile 22. As an author (with help from hockey historian Michael McKinley), he’s a refreshingly unvarnished raconteur, at times as entertaining as he was on the ice. Over an iced tea at a well-heeled Toronto pub, the soft-spoken Avery discusses fighting (both real and pretend), managing anger and pain, and how to thrive when everyone’s out to get you.
Q: What can you tell us about the new Peter Berg movie you’ll be appearing in?
A: I’m playing a CIA agent, and I have a big scene at the start where I go into a house and kill a bunch of people… There’s a big, choreographed fight scene. I’ve never fought for pretend, which is kind of interesting. It’s like taking a few inches off of everything.
Q: The entertainment aspect of fighting should be familiar to you …
A: I tried to make a show of a fight. I used to spin my helmet; it started to become a signature for me—it was the only time that you could have the entire arena stop and just look at you. I always thought guys who’d go toe-to-toe with each other was the stupidest thing in the world, because all you need to do is make sure you land on top of that guy, and then the fans cheer. The reason you did it was to change momentum.
Q: You write, “The NHL discourages individuality because they like to control things.” Was that a governing aspect of your career—trying to wrest control back from the league?
A: Yeah, look at the [birth of the] Sean Avery rule [which states that you can’t face a goalie and distract him]. I had this reputation with the league and the refs—I wasn’t going to get the upper hand in a battle with Marty Brodeur. I realized, “I’m going to turn around and put my hand in his face, because then I’m not going to take a penalty.” That was a perfect example of me trying to stay ahead of them. I felt that as my career went on, they were trying to find a way to get rid of me. Certainly, sending me to rehab for 30 days, after the “sloppy seconds” comment, felt like they were trying to put some sort of taint on me that didn’t fit the crime. They sent me to a drug-and-alcohol—not an anger-management—rehabilitation facility. I was in rehab with crack addicts and people that had been alcoholics for 40 years. Long story short, I was always trying to stay ahead of them. I’ve always had this chip on my shoulder because of my size, and I was always having to defend myself when I even walked into a room. When I was playing, it was still a big man’s league.
Q: How did the NHL work its way around to discouraging individuality?
A: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when [NHL commissioner] Gary [Bettman] came in, the league got focused on getting and keeping those TV dollars. The mentality is, “We promote this type of player, and this type of player only.” It’s been safe and, I guess you could say, successful. It’s the complete opposite of what the NFL does; they promote villains and heroes. That’s also the formula in every Hollywood blockbuster.
Q: You write about playing with the New York Rangers under coach John Tortorella, and how you kept hoping he would realize the value of your hard work—but how nonetheless, he kept benching you and sending you down to the minors.
A: Yeah, what it says is how much I loved playing for New York. It was the only place I felt like I belonged with the people. As long as I had it in my head that I was a hockey player, I was going to do everything to make sure that I was there, even though staying there, I put my own nail in my own coffin. There’s irony in that.
Q: During your time with the Rangers, your friend Derek Boogaard died of an overdose. You describe the way drug addictions take hold among players, and how you would regularly take injections of Toradol during the playoffs, despite the threat of liver damage. Are people being encouraged to take risks with their lives for the sake of a team?
A: I think people don’t understand how much hockey players put their bodies on the line. It would be a different game without a drug like Toradol, because you wouldn’t be seeing the level players play at, certainly in the play-offs. Guys just wouldn’t be playing. They wouldn’t be able to get through it, especially with four rounds of seven-game series. There’s no harder grind. It would be extremely tough to police [Toradol], because winning is too valuable to both the players and the organizations. It’s whether you retire a rich man or a poor man, in some cases.
Q: Two years ago, you were charged with possession of what turned out to be prescribed drugs. You tweeted out a list of prescriptions, and among them the ones you had been charged for. Is some of that an ongoing issue with injuries?
A: Yeah. There’s days that I have a tough time getting out of bed; my body doesn’t agree with me. When the weather changes, it really hits the joints. I stopped playing when I was 32. I played abnormally hard compared to my size and the type of player that I was. [Now] it’s a [pain-] management problem, and some days, the only way to get through that is with drugs. It’s the exact same thing as when we’re playing and we’re trying to get through a game. CTE [Chronic traumatic encephalopathy] happens to your brain; having your body degenerate because of the game that you played is a different thing. They get lumped into the same category. I never had a concussion during my career. I’m pretty sure that my brain is working well, but my body’s f—–d up because I played hard for 12 years.
Q: At points in the book, it seems like you’re settling some scores, articulating your point of view on controversial situations. Was that an important reason to write Offside?
A: No, not really. There are a lot of relationships that I didn’t blend well with over my career, and I was open with my own faults in this story; it gave me the freedom to be honest from my point of view about those other big moments, like the Brodeur situation [in Offside, Avery takes him to task for events in the goalie’s personal life] or the relationship with Tortorella. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was the template for my book; I tried to follow it as close as I possibly could in the style of writing. If you write an honest book, you’re going to take shots at people. There’s going to be people you didn’t like along the journey, and you’re going to write your point of view. With [Brodeur] I think I’m very matter-of-fact and frank. It’s weird to me that I look like I’m taking a shot at somebody because of their behaviour, which clearly isn’t acceptable, but because they’re a hall-of-fame goalie in this old-boys’ world, somehow it’s sort of accepted—and I’m the asshole for saying that he’s an asshole?
Q: You’re attacking him because he did something that you perceive as wrong, but also, you’re trying to get into his head. How do those two things come together?
A: When I was trying to be effective, there were a couple areas that I never went after, which was your mother, your sister’s sexuality preference, whether your dad or brother was a drunk—those are things that you can’t control. If there was an opening to go after a guy because of a decision that he made that I didn’t think was morally up to snuff, then I would.
Q: Some people have taken you to task for approaching homeless people in New York last year, asking them the time, and filming it on Snapchat…
A: I live in New York; I have this fantasy mentality of, when you walk out onto the streets of New York City, everyone becomes equal: We’re all sort of the same. So that was a situation where I didn’t really take the time to think, “Well, why are these people here? Maybe they’ve had a hard time and they’ve hit some bumps on the roads.”
Q: People have criticized you for apparently trash-talking the homeless…
A: Like I’m antagonizing them, like I do it in my daily life? I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy, [but] there’s definitely a correlation: if a cab driver or somebody tells me to f–k off on the streets of New York, I generally have a better comeback than “F–k off!” back. It’s always going to be in me. It’s something that I constantly have to control and manage.
Q: Another thing that made you stand out was your expressing support for gay marriage, as one of the first pro athletes in North America to do so. Throughout the book, you mention how “faggot” is used as a slur, by players or fans. Did you have a sense that by sticking your neck out, you were going to draw some ire?
A: No, because there was so much ire directed at me already. I had done an internship at Vogue a few years prior, so at that point, everyone had assumed that I was gay anyways. I didn’t give a f–k whether they thought I was “more gay” or not. A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said, “Yeah, of course.” [The team] let me do it in my Rangers jersey, which was a pretty monumental thing, I think.
Q: Why is it that people got so upset?
A: We’re predominantly Canadian from small towns. I didn’t have any exposure to the LGBT community before I got traded to L.A., and the only reason I was exposed to it there was I moved to Laurel Canyon, which is essentially in West Hollywood. So, I don’t think guys grow up with it. I think it’s changing now because gay teenagers across the world are coming out. One hundred per cent [of hockey homophobia] in my opinion is the culture of how we talk, not the culture of what we’re uncomfortable with. I don’t think NHL players are uncomfortable with homosexuality. You could walk into any given dressing room in the NHL and see two men wrestling in their jockstraps. Sports are extremely homoerotic. We pat each other on the ass to congratulate each other. I think fans and opposing players labelling me with [homophobic slurs]—I pissed a ton of people off, so how are you going to try and get back at me? Well, it’s the easiest thing to go to. And I also played into it a little bit, too, because that was part of my fuel. I hated playing when I wasn’t the centre of everybody’s attention, wanting to kill me.
Q: What was that like interning at Vogue? Was Anna “Nuclear” Wintour intimidating?
A: No, that place is super-interesting because it’s a lot of smart people that dictate the direction a billion-dollar business goes, on a monthly basis. I got to be a fly on the wall on the biggest fashion magazine in the world, and to be around a lot of pretty girls. It was a great gig. Nobody yelled at me.
Q: You did act as an enforcer on a photo shoot with will.i.am, who was walking off the set in a dispute about what clothes to wear.
A: Yeah, I was just standing up for a co-worker that I thought was getting pushed around, and I made a comment like, “You can’t really mess with Anna Wintour. You should probably rethink your decision here, because she’s the queen. You ever want to be the magazine again, you probably should play ball.” I could see everyone’s expression change: “Oh, man, he’s got a point there.” And then it was like, “Who is that guy?”
Q: What do you want aspiring young players to take away from this book?
A: That they can f—-n’ be themselves and not be afraid of anything. As long as you get up and work hard, and you outwork the person across from you, that’s all you’ve got to worry about. You don’t have to apologize to anybody.
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CORRECTION, Oct. 24, 2017: The introduction to this Q&A originally stated that Avery played 15 seasons in the NHL. In fact, he played 10.