NEW YORK – Sean Avery can return to the NHL in less than two weeks. The Dallas Stars, however, seem much less forgiving than commissioner Gary Bettman.
Avery drew a six-game ban Friday for a crude comment regarding his ex-girlfriends dating other hockey players. It will take a lot longer to repair the damage he caused to the Stars organization and the coaches and teammates who don’t appear to want him back.
“He’s always on the edge, certainly, on the ice, which no one really has an issue with,” forward Mike Modano said. “But when it becomes public and it becomes off-ice situations, that’s when you have a problem with it.”
Avery already has served two of the six games and will be eligible to return Dec. 16 against Phoenix. He’ll forfeit nearly US$125,000 in salary according to the Dallas Morning News.
“We needed to be clear that this was the type of conduct that we did not view was acceptable and not representative of what our players do,” Bettman said.
Avery, who has twice led the NHL in penalty minutes and is second this season, also agreed to be evaluated for anger management – a requirement for his return. The league cited his “pattern of unacceptable and anti-social behaviour.”
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I need help,”‘ said Stars general manager Brett Hull. “It was brought up by him.”
This is Avery’s first league suspension in seven seasons. Stars owner Tom Hicks said he would have banished Avery if the NHL hadn’t.
“You have to move on and start a new chapter, and that’s kind of what we’re planning on doing,” Modano said. “We’ve kind of washed our hands of the situation.”
Bettman deemed Avery’s behaviour “detrimental to the league or game of hockey” and indicated that the 28-year-old player has “expressed remorse.”
“I wanted it to be clear to the fans that this isn’t something that we tolerate – particularly fans with children who might have to explain to them what this statement was,” Bettman said.
The league said Avery’s actions have often been “at odds with the manner in which more than 700 fellow players conduct themselves.”
Bettman said Avery had been close to a suspension many times, but the league couldn’t always verify his actions. The commissioner said he warned Avery during the playoffs last year, and the player was also warned by league disciplinarian Colin Campbell.
“I felt we had to punish,” Bettman said.
NHL Players Association executive director Paul Kelly said the union does not condone Avery’s comments, calling them “clearly inappropriate.” He added that the “discipline imposed by the commissioner is unprecedented both in its severity, as well as the process by which it was handed down.”
Kelly said the union will explore legal options should the Stars try to get out of Avery’s contract. The team signed him to a US$15.5-million, four-year deal in July.
Avery had been under an indefinite suspension since Tuesday and spent three hours at league headquarters for a disciplinary hearing on Thursday.
“We have to fix him,” Hull said. “There were a lot of words thrown out – anger management, depression. He’s going to use this time to figure things out.”
Hull played with Avery in Detroit and was influential in bringing him to Dallas. The GM insisted that treatment is merely a beginning.
“You don’t go to a retreat for a weekend and it’s fixed,” Hull said. “There will be apologies made, probably more privately.
“Once the suspension is over and once we find out the process he’s trying to go through, as an organization, we’re going to decide as a group what direction we’re going to go. The players will have a chance to give their input.”
So far, it has been mostly negative.
“I could forgive somebody for making a mistake or making a few mistakes, but it goes a lot deeper than that,” goalie Marty Turco said. “I’m pretty sure Brett knows how we feel.”
Avery sat out Dallas’ win at Calgary on Tuesday and again Wednesday when the Stars lost at Edmonton. His teammates denied him the chance to apologize to them, and his message of contrition was distributed by his publicist on Wednesday.
The incident happened on Tuesday morning in Calgary as reporters waited to speak with Avery about his recent disparaging remarks concerning Flames captain Jarome Iginla. Avery asked if a camera was present, and when told there was, said he was “just going to say one thing.”
“I’m really happy to be back in Calgary; I love Canada,” he said. “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.”
He then walked out.
Avery’s ex-girlfriend, Canadian actress Elisha Cuthbert, is dating Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf. She also had been romantically linked to Mike Komisarek of the Montreal Canadiens. Avery also dated Rachel Hunter, the former Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model who is the girlfriend of Los Angeles’ Jarret Stoll.
The Stars entered Friday with the fewest points in the Western Conference. Dallas coach Dave Tippett is among those who have questioned whether Avery would be welcomed back.
“It’s up to us as a group to decide if that’s possible,” Hull said. “Anybody who uses him as an excuse for their poor play, I’m not sure I want them on my team.”