EDMONTON – The Dallas Stars have made the best of a bad situation by cutting loose disgraced winger Sean Avery, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.
“They’re supportive of him getting the counselling he’s getting, they’re continuing to pay his contract, and I think it became obvious that that was an uncomfortable situation for everybody, so they’ve all decided to move on,” he said.
“I think that was a very professional way to handle it.”
Bettman was speaking to reporters after addressing and taking questions from the floor at a chamber of commerce luncheon at a downtown hotel.
He received an ovation from the 400 in attendance when, in answering a question on Avery, he made his most personal comments to date, saying Avery’s raunchy public asides about an ex-girlfriend offended him as a commissioner and as a parent.
“What Sean Avery said was wrong. It was offensive. It was disgusting. We have a lot of women who are fans. We have a lot of children who are fans, and to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t want to have to explain to my 12-year-old daughter what he said.”
The 28-year-old winger, now undergoing anger management counselling, finished serving a six-game suspension Sunday for comments he made Dec. 2 in Calgary about ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert, who is dating Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, deriding her as “sloppy seconds.”
He has since publicly apologized for the remarks but on Sunday the Stars decided Avery was a distraction not worth rehabilitating in a season where their squad is struggling on the ice.
A Canadian Press Harris-Decima Poll this week suggested Canadians backed the suspension. Some sixty-three per cent of 1,000 people surveyed by phone over the weekend said the suspension was justified, compared to 21 per cent who disagreed.
Avery had been signed in Dallas as a free agent over the summer and logged just 23 games in a Dallas uniform.
In Dallas, online letter writers are questioning the wisdom of Stars co-general manager Brett Hull for signing Avery to a US$15.5-million, four-year deal despite Avery’s history of blow ups with fans and other players.
“Every team has signings that have not turned out as expected. But for a player that couldn’t stick with any team he’d play for, why would Hull sign him to a guaranteed contract? Avery wasn’t that much in demand. Avery has a great agent, and Hull sucks at contract negotiations. This contract will haunt the Stars for a long time,” a blogger dubbed planoiceman wrote to the Dallas Morning News.
Comments by another were more to the point: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Sean.”
In his speech to the chamber, Bettman said the NHL game is thriving on the ice, enjoys strong television ratings and is well-positioned to ride out the economic downtown, at least for this season.
Ratings are up 14 per cent for CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and four per cent on TSN, he said.
He said up to last weekend there had been 51 games where the winning team trailed by two or more goals at one point. At that point last year there had been only 33 such games.
He said in seven games this season there have been three or more lead changes, compared with one at this point last season.
“No lead appears to be safe anymore,” he said, attributing the change to excellent shooters and to mandated smaller goalie equipment.
“We’re seeing more pucks squeezing through the five-hole and we’re seeing more pucks going between the goalie’s arm and his chest.
“Our product is vital, it’s vibrant,” he added.
“But I am concerned about how things could turn out next year, because nobody knows. There’s no way to predict how 2009-10 will look.”
Bettman also beat the drum for a new downtown rink for the hometown Oilers to replace the aging north-end Rexall Place.
“It is imperative that the Oilers have a new building, and the plans for a downtown building I think are vital not just for the future of this franchise but for the city.
“It can become an economic engine. It can attract tourists.”
The Oilers have enjoyed 133 consecutive sellouts at the 16,839 Rexall facility and team president Patrick LaForge estimates they could fill at least 2,000 more if they had room.
The Oilers have committed $100 million to a new downtown rink, but local and provincial politicians have been loath to promise any public money, even in principle.
LaForge later denied asking Bettman to make the public comments and Bettman himself said he wasn’t trying to light a fire under local and provincial decision-makers.
“I was really just saying it the way I saw it. I wasn’t intending a particular message to any particular person.”
Paul Stanway, spokesman for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, reiterated “there will be no direct provincial funding for hockey arenas” in either Edmonton or Calgary.