Puckface Sean Avery and the Top 10 NHL Stories in Best Hockey Season Ever

Martin AverySenior Writer IApril 10, 2009

NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Ryan Malone #12 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sean Avery #16 of the New York Rangers fight during the first period on March 31, 2008 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Penguins 2-1 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As the NHL stretch run climaxes dramatically and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to begin, it's the perfect time to look at the top 10 stories in what many are calling the best ever year for hockey.

Gone are the goons, the gross disparities between rich and poor teams, the neutral zone trap, and the defensive era in hockey. The NHL is evolving into even more of a high speed, high skill game, but it is still hard-hitting, has lots of fights, and the  parity, or competition between teams, has never been better.

The NHL is not problem-free, but issues like expansion and the placement or location of teams can be examined and solved at another time, or a few sunbelt teams can move up north to the land of ice and snow and everything will be settled.

Many great stories have come out of hockey and the NHL this year and some have gone beyond.

10. After the death of a hockey player, NHL GMs get together to discuss violence and fighting. Don Sanderson was a 21-year-old hockey player from Port Perry, Ontario, who played for the Whitby Dunlops, in the Ontario Senior Hockey League, who got in a fight, took off his helmet, hit his head on the ice, and died.

That led to the London Hockey Concussion Summit 2009, where many experts and athletes discussed the issues of violence, fighting, concussions, injuries, and death.

The Ontario Hockey League, which sends a large percentage of Junior A players to the NHL, adopted a new rule which changed the tradition of hockey players taking their helmets off at the start of a fight.

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The NHL has not yet adopted the rule but is moving towards cutting down on staged fights.

9. The death of Alexei Cherepanov, 19, during a regular season game in the Kontinental Hockey League, was another hockey tragedy that led to controversy.

Cherepanov, selected first by the New York Rangers in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, was nick-named the Siberian Express and compared to Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Pavel Bure.

After playing a shift with his mentor, Jaromir Jagr, he collapsed on the bench of his KHL team, called Avangard Omsk.

The death of Cherepanov led to an investigation and changes in health monitoring in the KHL. The NHL gave the Rangers a draft pick. The hockey world mourned the loss of a great one.

8. The conflict between the NHL and the KHL started when the NHL accused the KHL of poaching players, especially the gifted goal-scorer Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators. The KHL stated its intention to compete with the NHL and made NHL star Jaromir Jagr the face of the new league.

The NHL refused to commit to allowing players to participate in the 2012 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Russia.

7. Ovechkin led the NHL in scoring all year, was the first and only hockey player in the NHL to score 50 goals this season, and many said he replaced Sidney Crosby as the premier hockey player in the NHL and the world.

6. Sidney Crosby registered over 100 points, behind only Ovechkin and teammate Evgeny Malkin, and added fighting to his repertoire. He complained less and hit more. In a game during the stretch run, after Malkin was hit hard and taken out of a game, it was Crosby who dropped the gloves and took five minutes for fighting plus another two for roughing.

5. Evgeny Malkin led the league in points all year but was upstaged by Sidney Crosby, his teammate on the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Alex Ovechkin, his teammate on Russia's national team.

4. Claude Lemieux made a comeback to the NHL via the China Sharks to play with the league-leading San Jose Sharks.

3. The Montreal Canadiens celebrated their 100th season in the NHL, but not the way they wanted. Their great expectations for winning it all in their centennial year were dashed when they fell out of the playoff picture, got mired in controversy, then fought their way back into the playoffs.

2. In a game against the Canadiens, in Montreal, New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur took over the record set by Patrick Roy to become the goalie with the most wins in the NHL.

1. A controversial character became an unlikely symbol for hope and change when Sean Avery, the superpest and king of the agitators who led the NHL in penalties for two years and was infamous for offensive trash-talk, got kicked out of hockey but made a major comeback.

The NHL suspended him indefinitely, the Dallas Stars dumped him, and it looked like he was out of hockey, unless he wanted to go to Siberia and play in the KHL.

Instead, he went to anger management and emerged as a new man with a Gap ad, a Hollywood movie called Puckface, a restaurant partnership, and an invitation to rejoin the New York Rangers, after playing himself into game shape with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL.

And his return helped the Rangers end their longest skid in decades, turn around a promising season that started strong but sent them out of the playoff picture, and brought them back into the playoffs.

Avery's return was not without controversy, fights, and hits. It appeared to be open season as referees looked the other way while players on other teams lined up to hit him.

Fans for other teams booed him every time he touched the puck or even stepped on the ice, but the Rangers fans in Madison Square Garden applauded and cheered his every move, chanting his name over and over again.

The Rangers promoted him from the third line to the first, he scored a goal a game for three games, got a dozen points in 20 games, and was named first star of the game in the NBC's Game of the Week. NBC game him the star treatment, following his every shift with their "star cam."

Lots of people still hate this hockey player, or love to hate him, but Rangers GM Glen Sather predicted that the Rangers new coach, John Tortorella, would learn to love him, and Avery proved Sather right.

After hiring Tortorella, trading for Nik Antropov and Derek Morris, and the return of Avery, the Rangers went from vanilla to villain, started winning, turned into something of a Cinderella team, and fought their way back into the playoffs.

Guess who set up the game winning goal that clinched a playoff spot for the Rangers.

You guess it: Puckface, Sean Avery.

Love him or hate him, I think you'll have to agree he is the No. 1 story in the NHL this year.