He can play hockey, and he can keep his cool. “I just woke up and decided I wanted to change my game a little bit,” the NHL’s perennial bad boy said in an interview from Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’ll do it overnight. But I’ve certainly had a very noticeable change so far, I think it’s there.”
Indeed, there has not been a major Avery incident to talk about this season other than two diving penalties. On a short leash from a Kings team that gave him one more chance after last year’s antics, the 26-year-old Avery has been on his best behaviour.
At least for him.
New head coach Marc Crawford is there to make sure.
“I’m more mellow and I think just thinking things through a bit more,” said Avery. “I’m trying to stay focused, that’s the big thing. And Crow’s on me. The majority of conversations we have are not PG-13, that’s for sure. And that’s good, I don’t expect it to be anything different. That’s a good way for him to get his point across with me.
“And it’s working. I know what he expects from me and I know if I don’t do it I’ll hear about it from him.”
The old Avery had more enemies than friends. He drove opponents crazy with questionable hits and a constant verbal barrage. He drove his own teammates up the wall with stupid penalties and off-ice distractions. Referees couldn’t stand him for the abuse they took from him after calling a penalty on him. The league’s head office in fined him for repeated diving infractions.
It’s a big hole to dig out of.
“There’s still work ahead of him but he’s certainly made progress,” Kings GM Dean Lombardi said Tuesday. “Even the referees have noticed. He’s like a player with a record and his margin for error is less than anyone else. But he’s worked hard at not saying the things he did. Recently Sean got called for something and the referee expected him to blow up but he didn’t. The referee told Marc: ‘Boy, he’s changed.’ That I thought was very revealing.”
Avery is still among the league’s penalty minute leaders with 50. An aggressive power forward, he won’t ever be a Lady Byng candidate. But he doesn’t have a single fighting major this season and only has 10 penalty minutes in his last 10 games as his role has changed dramatically under Crawford. Instead of the fourth-line pest looking for trouble, he’s a top-six forward eating up never-before ice time in his five-year NHL career.
“I played 22 minutes the other night,” said Avery, currently on a line with Alexander Frolov and Craig Conroy. “That’s like Jagr or Fedorov ice time. There’s not a lot of forwards that play that many minutes in the league. I kill penalties, I’m on the power play, and I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of it.
“It’s a lot more fun than playing 11 minutes and worrying about whether you’re going to get killed by some guy named Boogaard or someone along those lines.”
Avery is fifth in Kings scoring with 11 points (5-6) in 20 games and third among L.A. forwards with 17:23 minutes played per game. He’s been over 21 minutes the last two games.
“It’s been great, and I think that whole responsibility thing in turn makes you a better teammate because you have to be,” said Avery. “You’re all of sudden put into a situation where people are depending on you.”
The biggest difference is that he’s not losing his cool on the ice. He’s not spearing a player in frustration or running around like a wild man because his team is losing. His Kings are only 6-10-4 this season as they rebuild under Lombardi but Avery has kept it under control in all those losses.
“In the past I would have probably tried to take out a Pierre-Marc Bouchard or someone like that and then I would have gone in the dressing room, smashed every Gatorade bottle, and tell the media that all of my teammates were a bunch of pussies,” said Avery. “That’s certainly out of my system now.”
To see that Avery got the proper guidance, Crawford put his stall between veterans Rob Blake and captain Mattias Norstrom – leadership on both sides of him.
“It was funny, the first couple of times I came in and saw that I kind of got pissed off about it but I didn’t really say anything. I just kept it to myself,” said Avery. “I’m buddies with both of them so the way I look at it is that I’ve got guys to talk to. Matty takes most of the brunt, I leave Blakey alone. Matty is getting constant abuse from me.”
After being suspended by the Kings with three games to go in the season last year – they were so tired of his antics they sent him home – Avery looked for counsel in the off-season. He called up former Detroit Red Wings teammate Steve Yzerman, and also had repeated talks with Lombardi and Crawford, who were both new to the Kings.
“Probably first and foremost the biggest difference is the relationship that I’ve built over the last couple of months with Dean Lombardi,” said Avery. “I’ve met with him a lot and talked about pretty much everything, on-ice stuff, off-ice stuff, stuff that has nothing to do with hockey. The connection there and the respect we have for each other has helped a lot.
“And obviously the relationship I have with Crow is pretty good. We don’t really correspond, there’s not a lot of talking going on between us, but I know what he’s expecting out of me and in return I’m getting a really, really amazing opportunity playing for him.”
As a restricted free agent last summer, the Kings could have said enough is enough and cut him loose. But Lombardi saw enough in him to give him another chance.
“I’d rather tame a lion than paint stripes on a kitty cat,” said Lombardi. “His competitiveness is real, you just have to make sure it’s channelled in the right direction. …
“No. 1 for him was learning to be a good teammate and he’s making progress there.”
Avery had a lot to lose. Being let go by the Kings would have been devastating. He adores his Southern California lifestyle, especially since his girlfriend is Hollywood actress Elisha Cuthbert (“Old School,” “The Girl Next Door,” “24.”).
“No, I wanted to stay, definitely,” said Avery, who signed a US$1.1-million, one-year deal with the Kings.
Avery has soaked in the Hollywood scene and learned a few things.
“It’s certainly interesting,” said the native of Pickering, Ont. “There’s definitely a lot of smoke and mirrors in that world. But I’ve certainly met a lot of interesting people through (Cuthbert). I’m a pretty outgoing guy, I mingle well with others and I’ve got other interests when I leave the rink. So it’s been fun to be here, I don’t think I could be doing this in Columbus or Nashville.
“And I think I’ve found a good balance. Once I get to the rink I can turn it off for four hours. I don’t think it’s a distraction.”
It’s easy to get distracted though when you’re hanging out with the likes of Paris Hilton. Name a big name and Avery probably met them.
“I’d say pretty much everybody at some point,” said Avery.
Last weekend Avery brought the Canadian-born Cuthbert to a rink and helped her brush up on her skating.
“She skated a bit when she was younger but she’s starting a movie in New York and there’s a scene where she has to skate,” said Avery. “She was nervous about it so we went and found a rink in Burbank.”
Life is good right now for Avery. He knows people around hockey are just waiting for him to screw up again and say “I told you so.”
“I just think it’s different from the way it’s been in the past,” said Avery. “I think it’s the first time, probably, since I was 15 years old that I’ve had this relationship with a coach and a GM. A lot of the credit I’ll give to those two guys. I’ll take a little bit of it because I think I’m more focused.”