Did NHL overstep its bounds by suspending Avery?
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Did the NHL overstep its bounds by suspending Sean Avery?
Scott Burnside: Bonjour, mon ami. Hard to imagine a player who has made so little impact on the ice yet commanded so much attention as Sean Avery, but it represents one of the most interesting stories of the first half of the season, don't you think? Do you think the NHL has overstepped its bounds by suspending him?
Pierre LeBrun: Greetings, Mr. Burnside. Cutting right to the chase, are we? OK, then. If this was solely about Avery's comments in Calgary, then yes, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could be seen as being too heavy-handed. But as we both know, Scotty, the incident in Calgary was simply the last in a long line of bone-headed episodes that accumulated into one giant screenplay, translating into trouble. After the pregame incident with Darcy Tucker last season, Avery was given a strict warning by NHL director of operations Colin Campbell not to ever show up again in a disciplinarian hearing. Well, Avery can't say he wasn't warned.
Burnside: Well, Bettman suspended him for six games, and Avery has agreed to an anger-management evaluation, but I think the bigger story is what happens in Dallas. Does he come back? Do the Stars bury him in the minors? This is a team that is banged up and trying to play its way out of a big hole. Avery's a big ticket, so it's going to be a major decision one way or another. Seems certain if his teammates were polled, Avery wouldn't be back at all.
LeBrun: Judging from what one Stars player told me Thursday, there's no way they want him back. But one thing I'd like to point out is the Stars, as an organization, don't deserve to get away without any fingers pointed at them during this whole episode. They signed the guy this past summer, when everyone in the hockey world said, "What the heck are you doing?" It's nice and dandy for Stars owner Tom Hicks to take the high ground now, but where was he last August when he signed off on co-GM Brett Hull's plan? Because of that, I hope there's no easy way out of Avery's four-year, $15.5 million contract. Either they pay him in the minors or they buy him out at two-thirds and take a serious cap hit over the next six years. They don't deserve any other loopholes.
Burnside: Wow, you're a bit of a hard case, eh? I agree. And I think there's a day of reckoning coming in Dallas. I think it's fair to say Hull has been the "star" of the management duo, while most hockey people view Les Jackson as the guy doing the heavy lifting as far as the management work. But it was Hull who went after Avery. I will say this: I didn't mind the move. Avery gave the Rangers some much-needed sand, and more or less toed the line there. I liked the possibilities Avery brought to the mix. Sadly, he has just poisoned the well, not raised the water level. What do you think becomes of Hull?
LeBrun: Jackson should have been named GM by himself last season. Actually, Doug Armstrong should have never been fired. But that's another story for another day. Jackson should be GM, and Hull should have gone the route of Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille and Ron Francis: Learn through other jobs in the organization, and then maybe one day you'll be ready. Clearly, with the Avery signing, Hull has shown that he is not. But I will cut him some slack on one thing: He didn't sign Avery for the Hollywood aspect; he really thought Avery would bring an added dimension on the ice that the Stars needed to get over the top. It backfired, big-time. Now that Avery is gone, however, do you think the Stars rally and salvage their season?
Burnside: Well, given that I did pick them as my preseason Cup winner, I will answer affirmative. Because, as you know, it's all about me. I thought they put in a great effort against Calgary the night Avery acted up, but they where then handled by Edmonton the next night. As you know, it is awfully difficult to make up a lot of points after the New Year -- only the Caps really made a significant move in the standings past the halfway point last season -- but I think Dallas has the potential. The Stars need to get Sergei Zubov back, and missing Brenden Morrow is huge, but I still say they're a playoff team, if not a realistic Cup contender.
LeBrun: The danger in all of this is that the Stars somehow blame Avery for all their ills, and that would be a big mistake. Last time I checked he didn't play defense, nor did he don the pads and let in all those goals that have gone in this season. There are deeper issues here. But right now, it sounds like they are ready to ride the anti-Sean wave to some short-term success at the very least. It's interesting, by the way, to see how many of our ESPN.com hockey readers have defended Avery. And I must say, when one reader pointed out that the NHL seems to be reacting more fiercely to Avery's off-ice antics than to some violent acts from players on the ice over the past few years, I really didn't have much of an answer for that one.
Burnside: I've seen those comments, not just from readers but from columnists and broadcasters, too. I don't buy the argument. You can't compare the two. Does anyone argue that Avery was way, way over the line? No. How does his disgraceful behavior relate to Doug Weight's hit on Brandon Sutter, or anything else that happens on the ice? It doesn't. It's just a convenient excuse to blast the league, which I think is misguided. You know, I have a lot of trouble with how the NHL handles its on-ice discipline, but I like, for the most part, how Bettman has handled issues like Mark Bell and Rick Tocchet, and now Avery.
LeBrun: The other interesting part in all this is it seems Avery has upset people in my country more than yours. I might be reaching, but that's the sense I'm getting. Many of my Canadian readers are happy Avery has been suspended, while many of the "What's the big deal?" comments are mostly from U.S. puck fans. And I just wonder if some of that is the Terrell Owens/Allen Iverson/John Rocker generation of U.S. sports fans, who are used to much more shocking things from their athletes, while our sports fans on this side of the border are used to polite and classy hockey players like Jarome Iginla, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. In other words, we like boring up here.
Burnside: I'm not sure that's necessarily true. Most of what I've read suggests the same level of disgust with Avery. Maybe fans don't get that it's a big deal, but maybe that's because they don't know all of the back story with Avery and how he's basically been a jerk for a long time. I like that the NHL has done something that maybe wouldn't have been done in other leagues. I like that people get suspended for using racial epithets on the ice. People, sadly, often confuse colorful with crude. That's definitely an American thing. I think it's nice the NHL doesn't confuse the two.
LeBrun: OK, thanks for setting me straight. I knew I could count on your freshly approved American citizenship. But the controversy that has followed Avery throughout his career tells you about the culture that exists in hockey. I'm biased of course, because like you, hockey is the sport I played the most seriously growing up (I had a mullet). But I can't think of another pro sport in North America in which the team-first attitude is more prevalent than in hockey. Some of the NHL's biggest stars hate talking about themselves; they always try to shift the interview to their team. It's why they sometimes come off as boring to some fans, but it's ingrained in the hockey culture not to stand out, not to celebrate one's individual achievements. That's a huge reason why Avery has never fit in. Remember Detroit -- the game's model organization -- trading him away early in his career?
Burnside: I know everyone is prepared to write Avery off, and I agree it's hard to imagine how he could come back to Dallas, but he has shown that, over long periods of time, he can be a productive member of a team. The Rangers' record with Avery in the lineup the past two seasons was dramatically better than when he wasn't in the lineup. Coincidence? Don't think so. Maybe this incident does make him fly straight. Of course, he may be one of those guys who can't ever get his act together no matter where he is. Think Brian Burke might be interested? Just kidding.
LeBrun: Well, Burke does want to toughen up his team, that I know for sure. But that might not be the kind of risk the newly named Leafs GM wants to take. Regardless of how Avery's career winds up, it'll make a heck of a movie. On that note, my friend, I bid you "adieu" (that's goodbye in French).
Burnside: I was thinking "Dumb and Dumber"? I guess that's already been taken. (And I was referring to the Avery movie, not you, my friend.) Until next time.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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