The Much Beleaguered Avery Incident: Why We're Still Talking About It

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IDecember 3, 2008

Sean Avery is making headlines again, and the recent "sloppy seconds" incident has become an all-consuming topic of discussion for fans and media. Is all the attention necessary, or does it just fuel sensationalism?

Sean Avery has done it again.  With a single calculated act he once more managed to overshadow the game of hockey with attention-seeking antics, and this time it has resulted in his indefinite suspension from the NHL.

Following a morning skate at Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome before Tuesday’s Stars-Flames match-up, outspoken Dallas forward Sean Avery went out of his way to gather a herd of cameras, voice recorders, and other media before reciting an obviously rehearsed message:

                                 ***SEAN AVERY'S COMMENT 2/Dec/2008***

      "I'm really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. 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, but enjoy the game tonight."

It was clear Avery entered the room intending to make the comment.  Gasps and murmurs could be heard from Dallas players and other bystanders as he made his statement, and a reporter asked afterwards: "Is there going to be more of that on the ice tonight?"  Avery simply walked out the door.

He waited for TSN and other big-name cameras to arrive before starting his message.  The intention was too transparent for the NHL's liking.

Calgary-born actress Elisha Cuthbert has been dating Flames d-man Dion Phaneuf since early 2008, and was previously involved with NHLers such as Montreal’s Mike Komasarik and the aforementioned Avery. Cuthbert and not-so-subtle Sean went their separate ways in 2007, but the former 24 starlet has long been associated with the game. The actress has stated that she "loves hockey players", and once had her own blog on Her interest in hockey players has become infamous.  This is not the first time the Avery/Cuthbert/Phaneuf triangle has had publicity, and is not the only love-fiasco in the current Grate One’s life; Avery ex Rachel Hunter is engaged to LA King/former Edmonton Oiler Jarret Stoll.

The NHL believes Sean Avery’s confrontational comment contradicts their bylaws:

                     ***NHL PRESS RELEASE-2/Dec/2008***

       "Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery has been suspended  indefinitely, pending a hearing with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in accordance with the provisions of NHL By-Law 17 and Article 6 of the NHL Constitution for conduct 'detrimental to the League or game of hockey,'.... The suspension was imposed following inappropriate public comments, not pertaining to the game, made by Avery earlier today."


The NHL statement was made just hours after Avery's announcement.

Though just one of many inflammatory Avery incidents over the past few years, it was the “sloppy seconds” remark coupled with such apparent premeditation and publicity that pushed this one over the edge.  Had these comments been made privately in the locker room, or been chirped down the boards in a game, consequence may have been limited to an altercation on the ice.  Had Avery used different language, it would be just another charged comment.  The image-inducing connotations of  the phrase “sloppy seconds” used in public to describe someone outside of hockey has now been defined as “the line”, and Avery it’s pioneer.   No one expects pro-players to be angels, but even today it's considered poor taste and bad sportsmanship to publicly call out an ex or a fellow player and make blatantly obscene references.   

Of course, the NHL and the Dallas Stars also want to protect themselves, as each has been working tirelessly to revitalise public image.  This is what happens when Avery mixes things up: fans watch to see how far his team will distance itself, or cover for him.  The Stars have already made statements condemning his conduct, including the comment that had the NHL not suspended Avery, the team would have.  

    "This [Dallas Stars] organisation will not tolerate such behaviour, especially from a member of our hockey team. We hold our team to a higher standard and will continue to do so."

The Stars are already battling through a disappointing first-quarter, and the League cannot afford to have any preconceptions of barbarity in hockey cemented in the minds of the public.

Overall, the official response from NHL professionals has been in support of the lengthy suspension.  Team-mates have denounced Avery for his display of public classlessness, as has the League, the Stars organisation, and the media.  Dallas players Mike Modano and Marty Turco were particularly vocal, as were many of Phaneuf’s Calgary team-mates.  Flames forward Craig Conroy, quoted by local media, was critical of his former LA team-mate but not surprised, and felt Avery’s attempts at “humour” had finally gone too far:

    “He probably thought it was funny and the League, the Dallas Stars and nobody thought it was funny….  If he would have said it on the ice, who cares? To say it in the media is uncalled for and uncalled for for her.”

    "Unfortunately, you don't know what the right words are when ignorant comments are made, such as that this morning,” was Turco’s comment to media following the eventual 3-1 Dallas victory at the ‘Dome.  The floundering Stars worked through the media scrutiny and recorded their first pair of back-to-back wins this season.

The main targets of the verbal assault were tight-lipped; Phaneuf, a typically private man, made a short statement to local news sources:

    “I thought it was a very distasteful comment and the league took action, and I definitely agree with the way they took action.”

Cuthbert’s people did not return the media's calls, and have not yet responded to the incident.

There has been so much coverage that most of these facts were common knowledge within hours of Avery's strangely rehearsed blunder. There are few new ideas or opinions left to explore.  At this point, the attention the incident has garnered is bigger than the event itself.

Even with the disrespectful nature of the comment and media support of the NHL’s decision, this suspension will remain extremely controversial.  After just a few hours it had already been debated and disseminated in the media and sports-bars of North America.  There's disagreement, dissent, and a feeling of disgust, in either Avery, the NHL, or the situation.  One thing is certain, this single incident has caused more excitement among fans and media than anything else in hockey this year.

Indeed, I was hesitant to file my own article, as the floodgates have opened and sports pages are already overwhelmed with comment and opinion on this one irrelevent occurence.  The sheer quantity of conflicting perspectives changed my mind, as there are too many opinions to ignore.  It seems everyone has something to say about it.

Some say the suspension is a personal retaliation by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for Avery’s past criticisms of his office, or that this was simply the latest and worst of Avery’s ever-mounting pile of public infractions.  Many feel the reprimand was a long-time coming, while many others believe it’s an overreaction that could lead to other things, such as further censorship and personality-stifling. Fans on either side of the argument wonder if justice wouldn’t have been better served by allowing him to play and accepting his punishment on the ice.  

The validity of the suspension will be called into question when scrutinised and compared against other incidents when punitive action did not occur and arguably could have.  There have been other negative moments in NHL history, including many involving Avery.  There have been cases of name-calling, bias, physical altercations, public displays, scandals, and much, much more. His contentious tactics during last year’s post-season, in which he distracted goaltender Martin Brodeur in an unsportsmanlike fashion, resulted in an historic mid-playoff rule adjustment often called “The Sean Avery Rule”. Though Avery did not face discipline for that incident, Don Cherry would comment:


     "I've known this kid since he was about 16 years old; Once a jerk, always a jerk.”  

This time it was the public involvement of outsiders, seemingly evident sexism, and disrespect towards women which is virtually without precedent. Of course, suspension for comments made off the ice also appears to be a first, and League priorities will be called into question in light of the severity and haste of the sentence. Regardless, Gary Bettman is not one to be pushed around and told he is wrong, so expect either heavy justification or dead silence from the Commish’s office.

The next edition of this debacle will be seeing what kind of resistance Avery and his people put up, before and after the official hearing.  This is a man who likes to push boundaries.  Increasingly, he has ramped up his provocative nature, and fans and professionals alike have for years watched to see what outrageous stunt he would pull next. More people know Avery for his outlandish behaviour than they do for his skill at the rink, an effect which the NHL has abided until now. To what extent was his brand of character good or bad for hockey, as a business, entertainment, cultural obsession?

Far too many questions surround this so-called "issue".  Were Avery's comments intended for shock value, a pre-game psych-out?  Does he still have hang-ups about Cuthbert, is he a true misogynist, or was it simple trash-talk?  Or did he honestly not realize how bad his words would sound or how the NHL would react?  Perhaps the brash, obnoxious persona he puts out is the REAL Sean Avery.  Could he have finally hit self-destruct mode?

    “You’ve got to think eventually he’d cross that line and I guess he did this time,” was the response from Daymond Langkow.

Was the NHL too hasty or extreme in their response, or did they wait too long to rein Avery in?  No one seems sure what specific element they are reacting to.  Are feminist folks too sensitive, are macho males too insensitive, or is the appearance of correctness the real driving force?  Why didn't they suspend him sooner, why did they suspend him at all?  Few of these questions seem to have an answer and even fewer have been fully and officially explained.  People won't stop talking until definitive information is revealed.  Less spin, less sensationalism, more fact.

The Outrageous Avery will not continue travelling with his team, and shall remain in the doghouse spotlight as he awaits his hearing with Bettman and NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell. The first part of the NHL 'trial' will be held Thursday in New York. Sean Avery’s actions are of little surprise in light of his myriad previous infractions, but the ramifications of this one have already been momentous. Avery was expected, even encouraged to stir the pot, but he kept stoking the fire too.  Eventually, he made things too hot, and now the scent of singed hair lingers.  And there is more to come.

There are so many facets to this particular controversy, various reasons why the issue won’t die easily.  Sexual references, involvement of non-NHLers, premeditation, reaction, and intent come together to make up a hockey-gossip’s wet dream (pardon the phrase). Issues regarding standards of conduct and personal freedom have already arisen. The usual contradiction remains, that the deluge of media attention has brought heightened public focus to an innately private issue.  Jarome Iginla’s statement to local media may sum the common official reaction up best:

    “I don’t think it’s entertainment when you’re trying to insult other people….”

TSN video coverage of Sean Avery's media statement of 2 December 2008.


My initial reaction wasn't disgust at Avery's remarks or surprise at the League's reaction, but something like, "Woah...this is crazy...what's going to happen next?"  It surpassed any grating of teeth at Sean's crass comment, or any indignation over the NHL's possible overzealousness. Not so much angry or emotional, I was caught in disbelief at the actions of Avery, the League and the media.  The comment, the coverage, all seemed so unnecessary, if not avoidable.

For the record, I don’t think I have an opinion on this issue anymore.  I resent sexism and anything that shows disrespect to anyone, but at the same time I use as many distasteful terms as anyone.  I don’t usually publish these remarks, yet I can respect the people who say what needs to be said, or things others are unwilling to say. I may dislike individual content, but it's not up to me to decide where the line is drawn for anyone else; I can only draw my own.

I have no interest in the personal lives of others, so I have no idea if Avery’s words were warranted, justifiable, or malicious, and I don’t really care about public squabbles. (I did think it was funny, when I saw a sign at the game reading "Avery is Horrible", I thought it would be more apt if it said "Avery is Whoreable".  Tsk, tsk.)

As a person, am sickened by a double-standard that makes Cuthbert "sloppy seconds" and Avery a "rebel"; realise I still don't understand what goes on in the minds of the NHL's offices; I wonder about all the aspects of this overblown fiasco, and yet really couldn't care less.  As a writer, I hope to keep an unbiased front at the very least, provide as much information as possible, and let the readers make up their own minds. It's tough to take it seriously when all around are either too casual about one aspect or overbearing about the other.  Distractions like this which masquerade as newsworthy make it difficult to focus on the facts, sports, or the game of hockey, subjects I am ostensibly here report.  Worse, it distracts onlookers from more important current affairs.

If this is so important to media and onlookers, what does that really say?

From the moment the story first came down the wire I scoured the net to find not more detail on the incident, but public opinion.  Responses covered the full spectrum, and soon became repetitive.  We all the know the details, we all know our own minds; we know what WE think should be done.  It's what WILL happen that is news; the rest is just personal opinion.  I want to report a little of both, helping others keep a pulse on the ups and downs of the overblown hockey-related story of the year.  There are too many points-of-view on this to limit an article to just one opinion, and it's too much of a non-event to take very seriously.

And the media keeps reporting it....

I hope people can preserve their dignity, their right to free speech, exercise healthy (but not excessive) discretion, refrain from bigotry, and remain entertaining.  Right now Sean Avery’s comments about Elisha Cuthbert and Dion Phaneuf are considered a "major event" within my sphere: hockey, sports, Flames.  Realistically, I’m more interested in the fallout….

Take a look at the comments below for updates, more information, and to find out what your fellow fans think about this hot-button topic.

What do YOU think?  Do YOU think the NHL responded appropriately?  Which Sean Avery moment do YOU find most memorable?  Do YOU think Avery will play in the NHL again?  Are YOU sick of hearing about this, or think it’s all been blown out of proportion?

This incident is getting a LOT of attention.  Here’s YOUR chance to put in your two cents.


The 'descriptive' remarks men make about women are truly hurtful and insulting to most people, though often intermittently. There are things women say to or about men which sting guys deeper than the ladies will ever realise. We've all said and done things we aren't proud of, it's part of life.  Doesn't make it right, doesn't make it wrong.  Everyone (male, female, NHL staff) should feel free to express themselves, but use discretion when doing so, and make an effort to think outside themselves.  Think how you'd feel if it was your wife, sister, mother, daughter, or girlfriend being described like that publicly.  Then again, imagine using a turn-of-phrase which to your ears doesn't sound so bad...I remember saying "slut" instead of "whore" in a junior-high school play, and the teacher went white.  I couldn't see the difference; if "whore" was okay, why wasn't "slut"?  No excuse, but lesson learned.  I guess the rule of thumb is that a barstool sewer-session or a girl's club-night out is one thing...things turn grey when it starts going further than that, for anybody.  Good luck!


M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and will be adding to the NHL department over the summer. Future Flames articles include a breakdown of Calgary’s playoff performance in the 21st Century, roster changes and information, and Flames-specific trivia. M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an assortment of Flames/NHL articles.

M also writes on various other topics, sport and non-sport related. Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to M’s Bleacher Report profile or via email.


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