Sean Avery Suspended, but the NHL Misses the Point

Jennie LuptakCorrespondent IDecember 2, 2008


Sean Avery, the NHL's resident bad boy, was suspended indefinitely Tuesday morning following an off-color comment made in reference to his ex-girlfriend, Elisha Cuthbert (pictured) and her new beau, Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

Following the morning skate in Calgary, Avery put on a verbal show for the media gathered around his locker.

"I am really happy to be back in Calgary, I love Canada," he said. "I just want to comment on how it's become 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."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman promptly suspended Avery for conduct "detrimental to the league or the game of hockey," a move validated by the league constitution.

According to ESPN's Scott Burnside, it is believed to be the first suspension doled out for off-ice comments.

Anyone else pulls this stunt—one that might be considered nothing but ill-advised gamesmanship aimed at riling up Phaneuf—and the suspension might seem like overkill.

But Avery is no stranger to these kinds of antics, and this is just the most recent in a string of incidents involving the League's most controversial player.

During his tenure with the Kings, Avery made comments about French NHL players, insinuating they couldn't back up their tough play. In the same season, Edmonton Oilers forward Georges Laraque, a black player from Montreal, accused Avery of calling him a "monkey" during a game.

Avery denied involvement, and the incident was never confirmed.

Avery's most impressive antic to date came during the New York Rangers' 2007 playoff run. While the Rangers had a two-man advantage, Avery turned his back to the play and waved his hands and stick in face of New Jersey Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur.

No penalty was called on the play, but the following day the league issued a "rule interpretation" that dictated any similar action would henceforth be covered under the unsportsmanlike conduct rule.

More recently, Avery weighed in on the NHL's marketing plan, saying "no one cared" about "boring" players like Flames' captain Jarome Iginla, and that Bettman should be looking at selling " villains and heroes" instead.

Other unconfirmed actions include mocking Jason Blake's leukemia diagnosis, a level to which Avery vehemently denies stooping, flipping off a local camera man and getting into shouting matches with fans.

It is these past performances, and Avery's reputation as a repeat offender, that many believe brought about a suspension by the league. 

For their part, the Dallas Stars aren't fighting Bettman on this. Owner Tom Hicks released a statement saying he "completely supports the league's decision to suspend Avery," adding that had the league not taken action, "the Stars would have."

Dallas co-GM Les Jackson was a bit heavier with his comments, saying Avery "embarrassed our team, our city."

Goaltender and teammate Marty Turco said simply, "The show continues."

Not surprisingly, some are questioning if Avery can return to the last-place Stars after putting himself in the spotlight yet again. To that end, Jackson says, it's too early to tell.

Still, there are those who believe the league's action was too heavy handed, even with attention paid to the culprit. 

Greg Wyshynski points out the NHL could justify the suspension as a safety move, namely one aimed at keeping Avery in one piece and breathing, neither of which could be guaranteed if he was on the receiving end of a Phaneuf check.

Wyshynski also notes the ruling has an air of hypocrisy to it, especially considering the league's history of dealing with on-and off-ice incidents that have the potential to carry over the next game.

The best argument against Avery's suspension is the complete lack of consistency. Suspensions are doled out what seems like arbitrarily, with similar incidents being dealt two completely different punishments.

The current debate rages on hits to the head, and whether they should be banned by the league. Thus far, the league has released a strongly-worded memo saying "the nature of the injury" and "the history of the offender" would be taken into account when handing out suspensions, but stopped short of outlawing such blows.

If a potentially career-ending hit can garner as little as a three-game suspension, like Montreal forward Tom Kostopoulos' hit-from-behind on Toronto's Mike Van Ryn, how can the league possibly justify even a one-game suspension for Avery mouthing off to the media?

Simply put, they can't.

The issue, not surprisingly, comes down to business. The league has a marketing plan resting on the shoulders of its young and incredibly talented core, including Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Alexander Ovechkin, and Jonathan Toews. It has yet to branch into Avery's brand of marketing—heroes vs. villains—and it's unlikely the future holds a foray into such a venture.

Avery's indiscretions have become a public-relations nightmare tugging at the fabric of a carefully crafted plan aimed at vaulting hockey back onto the nation's professional sports radar. While other sports can deal with their own Sean Avery's shooting themselves in the thigh and shooting up with steroids, the NHL simply does not have that luxury.

Regulating hits to the head and setting a uniform policy on suspensions would help the league gain the legitimacy it so desperately seeks, but those are contentious and drawn-out issues.

For the quick fix, suspend Sean Avery.