- Scott Burnside, NHL
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In one swift moment, Sean Avery has moved seamlessly from mildly entertaining village idiot to something darker and more pathetic.
After waiting for reporters to gather around him in Calgary following his team's morning skate Tuesday, after ensuring Canada's national sports network cameras were rolling, the Dallas Stars forward launched into a rehearsed, crude statement referencing former girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert, and her current beau, Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
When he was done, Avery took no questions.
He had said enough.
"I am really happy to be back in Calgary, I love Canada," Avery said. "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. Enjoy the game tonight."
And if you didn't know the comments had actually been spoken, you'd swear it was a joke; off-color, to be sure, but a joke.
Surely no one, especially not a professional athlete already on thin ice with his team and the league, would make such a tawdry statement in public, let alone clearly rehearsing and planning for such an event.
But this was no joke. The only joke in this equation, of course, is Avery.
Before Tuesday afternoon was out, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman moved swiftly to suspend Avery pending a hearing under By-Law 17 and Article 6 of the league constitution that covers conduct "detrimental to the league or game of hockey." It is believed to be the first suspension of a player for a comment made off the ice.
Avery was to be sent home Wednesday morning from Calgary while the team went on to Edmonton. He will meet face to face with Bettman to determine what happens next, although specifics of that meeting have yet to be determined.
If this was an isolated incident, maybe a bit of ill-advised gamesmanship aimed at getting an opponent off his game, one might think Bettman was being a bit heavy-handed suspending a player for his words as opposed to his deeds.
This is not an isolated incident, but rather what may be the final indiscretion by a player whose career has been not just marked by indiscretions, but defined by them.
Sources told ESPN.com on Tuesday that, a month ago, when the Stars were involved in an ugly loss in Boston, Avery was involved in an ugly incident with a Bruins fan. According to the source, Avery was being heckled by the fan, and as he exited the ice, he stopped and yelled up a string of obscenities at the fan, including comments directed at the fan's female companion. The profane exchange was heard by many in attendance, including a police officer, and prompted complaints to the league. A report was filed to the NHL, but Avery avoided suspension.
In many ways, Bettman saved the Stars the initial problem of what to do about Avery themselves, or at least gave the team some time to plan what to do about its very public problem.
From the top on down, listen to the words spoken, listen to the inflection of the voices, and there is a sense that, like the league, the Stars have had their fill of Avery.
"He embarrassed our team, our city. He embarrassed our owner," Dallas co-GM Les Jackson told ESPN.com on Tuesday night. "Right now, we're pretty disappointed."
Stars owner Tom Hicks sounded like a disgusted parent at the end of his rope with a wayward teen -- and he's only had Avery under his employment since the summer.
"I completely support the league's decision to suspend Sean Avery," Hicks said in a release. "Had the league not have suspended him, the Dallas Stars would have. This organization will not tolerate such behavior, especially from a member of our hockey team. We hold our team to a higher standard and will continue to do so."
Jackson said the team will wait for the NHL to rule on Avery's punishment before deciding what they will do moving forward. Given all that, can Avery possibly return to the Stars?
"I think it's too early to say anything about that," Jackson said.
But Jackson, considered one of the classiest men in the business, made it clear there is no easy path for Avery's return. He's not going to serve out his time and waltz right back into the lineup -- that much seems certain. Also, given the four-year, $15.5 million deal Avery signed this past summer, there would be serious cap implications for Dallas if they choose to buy him out at the end of the season (the NHL's buyout period begins in June).
Jackson said there will be serious discussions from ownership on down about Avery's future with the club.
"It's pretty simple. It's totally unacceptable for the Dallas Stars. That's not how we want to be portrayed," Jackson said. "It's not how we want people to see us."
This is an important moment for a franchise that is struggling to stay relevant in the marketplace. Fans who have slowly drifted since the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup win will be waiting to see how the team responds to the Avery situation.
The players in the Stars' dressing room, who went to the Western Conference finals last season but are off to a rugged start in 2008-09, will be waiting to see what message management sends, as well. Even before the suspension was announced, players sounded disgusted with Avery's comments.
"Hopefully, he doesn't back down. He better show up like a man," Stars goalie Marty Turco told TSN of Canada before learning of Avery's suspension. "But we expect that out of him like we have all year and the show continues."
"It's none of my business what he says and I'd rather not talk about Sean," Stars center Brad Richards told TSN. "He's got his own thing going on."
You would have to search high and low in the hockey world to find someone who thinks Tuesday's punishment was not just, who thinks Avery didn't have it coming.
Imagine the thought process that went into Tuesday's act and it's not difficult to see why some hockey people believe Avery needs professional help. Indeed, that may be just what the league and/or the Stars mandate -- get help and try to figure out what lies behind the impulses that led to this point; get help in being a functioning member of society, and then see about the hockey.
If, as it appears, this is a crossroads for the 28-year-old, it may also be a crossroads for the current management team in Dallas. There will be hard questions asked of co-GM Brett Hull, who was the driving force behind signing Avery in the offseason.
No doubt the acquisition of the combustible Avery was shot through with danger, but this is a high risk/high reward kind of business, and this transaction was definitely that.
The Stars pushed Detroit to six games in the conference finals after upsetting Anaheim and San Jose last postseason and there was a sense they were close to being a championship team. Avery had proved in New York he could marry his sound offensive skills with his unerring ability to disrupt opponents. Witness his work in the first round of the playoffs last season, when his stick-waving shenanigans derailed Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. There were incidents like the pregame dust-up with Darcy Tucker and shooting the finger to a local photographer, but Avery had more or less toed the line in New York, where the Rangers enjoyed impressive success with Avery in the lineup.
So, Hull got his way and Avery signed with Dallas. It has obviously turned out to be an egregious mistake, one the team will pay for one way or another for years to come.
It's the kind of mistake that can kill a career. It's the kind of mistake Sean Avery is all too familiar with.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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