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Hefferon: A farewell to Avery (Oct. 11)

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The NHL is back on the ice after this weekend’s opening slate of games, and that brings with it all the excitement of the early season, as teams try to start out hot, shuffle their lines and finalize which players from training camp will grind out a spot on the team.

In that period of roster moves last week, the New York Rangers waived forward Sean Avery in a move that surprised pretty much no one in the hockey community. Avery was a constant nuisance in the locker room, known better for quotes after the game than his play during it. He was ineffective, overpaid and was even a healthy scratch from the lineup on a number of occasions towards the end of last season.

After signing marquee free agent Brad Richards over the summer, waiving Avery took care of an unneeded distraction for a team that could very well contend for a Cup. Releasing Avery was the right move, for all the right reasons.

And as a Rangers fan, it broke my heart.

Avery has never held the good-guy, family-friendly, Jeter-esque image that normally endears an athlete to fans. He had two separate stints with the Rangers, both of which started because of other teams getting rid of him after suspensions. The first came from a locker room screaming match with an announcer nearly twice his age, and the second was from accusing an opposing player of dating his “sloppy seconds” on TV. Combine that was his notoriety for cheap shots on the ice and his outspoken passion for fashion (he interned at Vogue magazine in the offseason), and Avery becomes a case study in how not to win over hockey fans.

The off-ice shenanigans made most fans dislike Avery, but his play could be even worse. He held possession far too long, and never seemed to take care of the puck. He seemed apathetic and downright lazy, and was sometimes booed by the fans.

Every once in a while, though, Avery would have a game that made it all worth it. When he decided to turn it on, the dial would go straight to 12, and no one could do anything about it. With one game, he could win over the fans who otherwise had no inclination to cheer his name.

My Avery game was a ho-hum, mid-season showdown on Jan. 6, 2010 against his former employer — the Dallas Stars. In a rare move, he downplayed the chance at revenge in the media, and instead saved it for the ice.

With a fire in his belly and rage in his heart, Avery took off like a malevolent pinball from the first drop of the puck. Avery found his teammates in open spaces, was a wizard with the puck, and hit somebody after every single whistle, including goals. He racked up penalties for misconduct and unnecessary roughness, and had every single Stars player gunning for his head. And after being kept off the score sheet in his previous 19 games, Avery’s statline ended like this:

1 G, 3 A, 4 Pts, 12 Penalty Minutes. Rangers 5, Stars 2.

The faithful at Madison Square Garden chanted down “AVERY, AVERY!” from the blue seats, and for one magical anomaly of a night, all was forgiven.

Yes, the move to release him was the right one. Avery would have been only a hindrance to an otherwise young, driven and talented team.

He could have gone on to torment another team, but thanks to a recent incident involving a giant house party and assaulting a police officer, not a single team picked Avery up off waivers, reverting him to the Rangers’ minor league affiliate, where he can be called up at any time.

Come March, the Rangers could be well on their way to a Stanley Cup run, with a big divisional lead and great team chemistry. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll be flat, and tired and banged up, with a big matchup ahead of them. They’ll need someone who can get in the face of his teammates and get inside the heads of every one of his opponents. They’ll need someone who can take the game over, turn it on its head, and win it singlehandedly. They’ll need a player who can win over fans with just one great performance that keeps them coming back.

They’ll need Sean Avery.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu

The views represented in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.