Sean Avery: Hockey’s Bad Boy Gets Pretty

Sean Avery is an anomaly in hockey. In a sport known for fighting and violence—and the two-time league leader in penalty minutes excels with the best of them—Avery is a guy with a much different side to him. He is engaging, loves dressing up in the latest fashion and manages to date Hollywood starlets like his current sweetheart, Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door, 24). These are not images you normally associate with the brutish and often boring image of hockey players.

Avery keeps things interesting. The king of trash talk in hockey has the dubious distinction of being the most hated player in the NHL—according to a 2007 Hockey News poll of 283 hockey players. He received 66.4 percent of the votes, a remarkable one-sided dictum of his skills at getting under his opponents’ skin—either with his mouth or his fists. He has also drawn the ire of league officials and management for his combustible outbursts. Take these attention-getting gems from the 2005–2006 season (prior to his trade from the LA Kings to the Rangers): he called his coach a clown, criticized the NHL (earning a fine), cursed out a broadcaster, was accused of racist remarks, and added a few choice remarks about French Canadian players.

But, as the very fortunate Rangers found out, the fiery Avery was not just a brawler on the ice, but a player. And more important to them, he was a catalyst for a club that sorely needed fresh energy. His midseason trade to the Blueshirts sparked a renaissance for the beleaguered club, and saw them go on a 17-4-6 end-of-season run. Ironically, a February 6 article in the Sporting News, directly after the trade, remarked, “It’ll be interesting, but it won’t be the move that pushes the Rangers into the playoffs.” But they measured Avery wrong. The left-winger put a lot of points on the board—20 of them in just 27 games—and injected spirit into the team. And most importantly, Avery helped take the Rangers on a run into the playoffs.

Okay, he’s controversial. But at the same time, he’s a guy that embraces the larger world around his sport—be it fashion, the future, or throwing some incendiary barbs in the right (or wrong direction). We know Sean Avery likes to mix it up. And in our exclusive Player interview with the firebrand, he didn’t let us down.

PLAYER: Losing the playoffs this year had to be very disappointing.

SEAN AVERY: Yeah, there are two things that you deal with: being upset, and it sucks, and then you drown your sorrows for a couple of nights and get it out of your system. Afterwards, you see a positive because we came together as a team and made a statement in this city, got people involved in the Rangers. We’ll go into the summer, probably sign a couple of free agents, get excited about that and feed off of what we did to end the season.

PLAYER: What was it like, coming from the LA Kings to New York?

SA: Well, LA is not a big hockey market. The Kings had a core group of fans, but nothing even remotely like New York. This is the biggest sports city I have ever seen. I played in LA for five years and I can probably count on two hands how many times somebody recognized me. Two weeks after I got to New York, I was getting tackled in the street by fans. It’s the mentality of New Yorkers; they’re just passionate about everything, which is perfect for me. It makes you want to win and it makes you want to play harder.

PLAYER: The Rangers weren’t very good before you arrived and then the season changed.

SA: People ask if I thought I sparked the team, I think it was the opposite. The team sparked me. Getting here into a new atmosphere, the way the fans were at Madison Square Garden, it’s like center stage. I just kind of went with it and good things started to happen. I have a little bit of arrogance, but I’m not going to take credit for the turnaround. Sometimes, teams need a little change of scenery, whether it’s a new guy or a new coach. It kind of lights a fire under everybody’s ass.

PLAYER: Change is good sometimes.

SA: No question.

PLAYER: So you walked in the door here, and they said, “We want to win.” There was no other message?

SA: Yeah, “We want to win and we want you to play the way you’re supposed to play.” That was it. When I was in LA the last four or five years, it just wasn’t a good situation. They were trying to have me act and play a certain way. When that happens, it’s like a boss at work that’s always up your ass. You know, it’s tough. But if you have somebody that believes in you and wants you to succeed, it makes it easier for that to happen.

PLAYER: You were in a bit of a rut in LA and suddenly you’re a different type of force, a better player here. You put a lot of points on the board for the Rangers instead of just a lot of penalty minutes. What’s different?

SA: I think the potential was always there, but the coaching staff here let me do my thing. I was more comfortable.

PLAYER: Before the Rangers, were you known as a player or a bruiser?

SA: In my mind, I was both. But in everyone else’s mind, I was the typical loudmouth kind of slug who’d just go out and get a lot of penalty minutes.

PLAYER: You led the league two years in a row in penalty minutes. That’s a lot of fighting. But you’re 5’9”, not a big guy compared to the goons in the league.

SA: I look at a guy that’s 6’2” and for some reason I feel like I’m the same size as him. I don’t know, it’s some sort of small-man syndrome but not in an insecure way. I just think I’m bigger than I am, I guess, which is probably a good thing.

PLAYER: Do you sometimes seek the other team’s tough guy?

SA: Never. If I’m engaging another player, there’s a purpose. I have a method for who I go after and when. If I didn’t, it would cost my team too much. You do what’s effective. It’s taken four or five years for me to get smarter about that. It’s a learning process.

PLAYER: When you get penalty minutes, don’t you put your team at a disadvantage?

SA: Not if you do it the right way. First, you gotta bring somebody with you. And other times you get minutes and it’s an investment. Maybe it’s early in the game or you’ve got a three or four goal lead and you know you’re going to play the team again in a couple weeks or in the playoffs. So you go out and get under another player’s skin. If it helps the team in the end, that’s what you’re trying to do.

PLAYER: How did you get yourself into the Hollywood glam world?

SA: (Laughs) I think I kind of just stumbled upon it. And obviously when I was playing in LA, I was in the mix. I like to go out and have fun. And when you do that, you tend to meet people.

PLAYER: Do you enjoy hanging out with other sports guys?

SA: Not really, athletes are not the most engaging people in the world. I think there’s some that are, but for the most part, athletes are simple guys that have played sports all their lives and that’s it. I don’t like to talk about sports. My interests are music and fashion—LA was good for that.

PLAYER: How’d you get into fashion?

SA: I had to keep up with my lovely girlfriend, Elisha. She’s very fashion forward so I had to step up and just got into it.

PLAYER: What brands do you like wearing?

SA: I like Costume National, Dior, Alexander McQueen, YSL.

PLAYER: You’re a metro!

SA: What? Guys aren’t allowed to wear nice clothes and be clean? Fashion is about people expressing themselves and wearing what makes them feel good. Hey, I like to wear nice stuff and present myself in a nice manner, smell nice occasionally.

PLAYER: It’s interesting, because not that many hockey players are fashionable.

SA: You got that right. We’re definitely the worst dressed out of all the sports.

PLAYER: When you come in the locker room all styled up, the players must really give it to you.

SA: Oh, I take a beating. These guys wear boring suits with pleats on their pants and cuffs on the bottom, so I just laugh it off. I’m cool with it. If anything, it’s kind of fun. I like to push the envelope with them and see how far I can take it. Sometimes I’ll wear a scarf to the game and my teammates have no idea what to do. I get a good laugh out of that.

PLAYER: But fashion is more than just looking good with your sport. You have strong opinions on how hockey should present itself to the public.

SA: Absolutely. Hockey needs to market itself better. The sport has no idea what’s cool anymore. They’re totally out of touch with reality. The NFL is a prime example. They have villains and heroes and they market them equally. And that’s why they have four and a half billion dollars a year in revenue. Nobody’s interested in the interviews that we do. Hockey is lacking individuality. It’s too much of a machine. I’m just stating the obvious. I’ve said this in every interview, and I’m sick of talking about it because it’s never going to change. Same old, same old.

PLAYER: You’re a free agent right now?

SA: Yeah, but I’d like to play here the rest of my career. I want to be a Ranger. But, you know, things happens, things change. Sports is a business.

PLAYER: Is it tough to put your heart and soul into a team and all of a sudden you’re on another team?

SA: As an athlete, you know that you can wake up one day, have to repack your bags and go somewhere else. That’s just part of the business and we all know that and accept that.

PLAYER: How did the Rangers receive you as a new teammate? You must have trash-talked some of them pretty good when you were in LA.

SA: Oh, yeah, definitely. But once you’re teammates, everything is different. Put it this way: I can fight a guy and we can bust each other’s faces open and then go have a beer afterward and it’s totally cool. Whatever happens on the ice stays there.

PLAYER: So when you’re going out for a beer, are you guys talking about the fight or just having a good time?

SA: Maybe we’ll talk about it for two or three minutes but then we’re worried about what we’re going to order or who’s going to pay the bar bill.

PLAYER: What do you like about New York?

SA: There’s always cool stuff. Like Monday night, I went to the Met Costume Gala, which was amazing because it’s all fashion. I got to dress up and hobnob with designers and be very artsy for an evening. When I’m in LA, it’s like, we do dinner and all the cool clubs and stuff but it gets old. Here, I haven’t even put a dent in all the places yet.

PLAYER: What kind of music do you like?

SA: I’m a huge classic rock fan, Neil Young, a lot of older stuff and also a lot of new stuff like Bloc Party and Sparta. I’m kind of all over the board. But no country. All they talk about is whiskey and their pickup trucks and their dogs. I also love going to festivals. A very good friend of mine, Jason Weinstock, does this festival called Bonnaroo, which is the world’s greatest festival. Last summer, I also went to Coachella, Sasquatch and then Lollapalooza at the end of the summer. So I have my four major festivals. I’m always trying to see as much live music as possible.

PLAYER: When your team suffers a loss, do you take it home with you?

SA: I think we play too many games for that. You just drown your sorrows for the evening, wake up the next morning and it’s a new day. I think that’s what makes you more successful as an athlete and as a team. Teams that don’t sweat the small stuff are usually more successful.

PLAYER: Do you have individual goals? Assists, goals?

SA: Initially, when I was younger, yes. When your team is not winning, those things naturally creep up in any athlete. When I got to New York, I really turned into a team player and realized what it takes to win and what it feels like to win.

PLAYER: In a poll of NHL players, 66 percent of them say you’re the most hated player in the league. You heard about that?

SA: Yeah, I’ve heard. I won by a landslide.

PLAYER: What does it take to be the most hated player in the NHL?

SA: Well, I’m very passionate, I want to win and I have an extremely big chip on my shoulder. Also, I don’t enjoy a lot of the guys I play against.

PLAYER: Why?

SA: Well, just what we talked about earlier. I think they’re boring. When I’m playing, I’m going to war. I want to do whatever it takes to win. And part of that is getting under their skin so that they do something to me. And hopefully that’ll help the team.

PLAYER: A lot of that is trash talking? v SA: Yeah. I guess I know how to hit certain guys’ sore spots.

PLAYER: Are there any rules to that?

SA: Kids are pretty much the only thing that’s off limits for me. Everything else is fair game. Especially wives and girlfriends.

PLAYER: Do you do research before the games?

SA: No need to. After a game I’ll see guys walking out with their girlfriends and take a mental note and really lay into them next time we’re on the ice.

PLAYER: And you can do that because you have a hot girlfriend.

SA: Yeah, what are they going to say to me?

PLAYER: Who’s the greatest player you’ve played with?

SA: Probably Steve Yzerman. I played with him in Detroit and he’s everything that I think an athlete should be. Captain of class. He’s the best. He could dress well. He knew how to pick a great bottle of wine. Would score a huge goal for you. Had a very hot wife.

PLAYER: So when you played against him, you left his wife alone?

SA: Oh yeah, you don’t say anything to a guy like that.

PLAYER: So great players are off limits, right?

SA: There are four of five guys that are just too good. You leave them alone, for sure.

PLAYER: Have you seen another player who’s at your level in trash talking?

SA: Not even close. With 66 percent of the poll, what do you think?

PLAYER: So if this poll goes down to 60 percent or 59 percent, would you feel like you’re losing your skills?

SA: I don’t go out of my way and be conscious about it, like, “Man, I really got to stay on top of this so I’m in the 66 percent rate.”

PLAYER: But, do you take pride in that?

SA: No, but I do laugh about it when I see it afterward. Just as long as my teammates are not the ones who are part of that 66 percent or whatever, then I’m fine.

PLAYER: Your teeth: fake or real?

SA: Real. I wear a mouth guard. I didn’t need to be a macho guy and play without one.

PLAYER: You mentioned that goalies are a little weird.

SA: You stand there as 200 pucks are shot at you at 70 miles an hour, 300 days a year, you’re going to be a little bit…different.

PLAYER: Are there any bizarre superstitions in hockey like in baseball?

SA: Well, we all eat the same thing before games. It’s always spaghetti and chicken. Every game. My whole life. Since I was 9 years old.

PLAYER: Every hockey player eats that meal?

SA: Every one of them.

PLAYER: What if someone’s a vegetarian?

SA: I haven’t seen it yet.

PLAYER: What if someone came in eating an enchilada?

SA: Before the game? Unheard of.