They call him "faggot." They call him "idiot." They call him "agitator." They call him, simply, "the most hated man in hockey."
And how does Sean Avery respond? With a shrug.
"I laugh it off...doesn't faze me," he says. "If you're going to dish it out you've got to be able to take it, right?"
Signed as a free agent last July to be the toxic oomph in the Dallas Stars' Stanley Cup potion, Avery arrives as a strong, sissified contradiction. In a sport that venerates mullets and missing teeth, he is simultaneously one of the NHL's dirtiest goons and a modern metrosexual boasting good looks, a fashion fetish, homosexual friends and orchestrated ambiguity. While his macho peers spent last summer fishin' and golfin', he interned at Vogue.
Truth be told, Avery fancies Madonna over Modano.
"Other players call me faggot and homo, things like that," Avery says in Frisco's cold, dark StarCenter after a practice last week. "I've learned that people in sports are some of the most narrow-minded. But I really don't care. It's not my job to fit into their expectations. Or to be nice, really. I'm just going to be me and do what I can to help my team win. That's it."
For the record, Avery is not gay. He's dated actress Elisha Cuthbert, model Rachel Hunter and was featured in the 2007 issue of People's "Sexiest Man Alive." Very un-gay.
Chuckles Avery, "I think I have a pretty clear track record."
Not that he wouldn't mind—or even invite—some doubt. Anything to piss off the establishment and its preconceived notions, whether they be a traditional goalie like New Jersey's Martin Brodeur or a Baptist Bible-beater like Dallas pastor Robert "Gay Is Not OK" Jeffress. While playing for the New York Rangers in last year's playoffs, Avery stood the hockey world on its head by employing a legal—yet unethical—tactic of turning his back to the puck and face-guarding Brodeur with waving arms and flailing stick.
And for years, he's played with dolls.
"I always loved dressing up," Avery says without a hint of emotion. "It's a hobby. Some guys play golf. I hate golf. I love clothes."
Uh-oh. I suddenly feel inadequate, slumming as I am in jeans from modest designer Levi Strauss, Foot Locker sandals and a ratty T-shirt emblazoned with "Wimbledon '04". Avery, in contrast, is wearing—at least to the untrained eye—what looks to be run-of-the-mill jeans and a dark blue V-neck sweater. But considering how he spent his summer vacation, it's a good bet the ensemble is more Gucci than Garanimals. In the off-season, he wrote a guest column on MensVogue.com, took in the unveiling of Marc Jacobs' latest collection with Winona Rider and Martha Stewart, and sat front row at Narciso Rodriguez's runway show.
The Devil wears Prada, indeed.
Avery's personal life is so provocative that it's being made into a movie. A romantic comedy chick-flick. How'd you guess?
"I'm fascinated by women's clothing," Avery says. "Just all the possibilities with all the accessories. I just find it really interesting."
Day job be damned, Avery dreams of playing on a line with Calvin Klein. He'd rather be interviewed by Ralph Lauren than Ralph Strangis. He is nothing if not determined to give your prejudiced mug a swift fore-check to the kisser.
"At heart I'm a hockey player," he says. "Just not a typical one."
Avery's an acquired taste, the bitter beer-face antithesis of your father's American sports hero. First of all, he's Canadian. He's more annoying than Jar Jar Binks. And as a kid, he balanced stealing the babysitter's dolls by getting kicked out of school for fighting.
He's listed at 5-foot-10, but the Texas Department of Public Safety says I'm 5-foot-8, and Avery and I see eye-to-eye physically and philosophically. In a culture dumbed down by coach-speak and pre-fabbed sound bytes, he is everything that's right with sports.
Intriguing. Candid. Genuine. Refreshing. Paradoxical. Successful.
Despite winning a Stanley Cup in Detroit and being given a four-year, $15 million contract in Dallas, Avery despises talking hockey. Despite being less than 200 pounds, he's one of the NHL's most feared players. And despite for years thriving in the center of the universe (Manhattan), he's now comfortable living in the middle of nowhere (Frisco).
For a guy who starred in an '05 movie about hockey legend Maurice Richard, is a wine aficionado and has appeared on MTV's Cribs, TRL and Punk'd, the prospect of a trip to Dave & Buster's inside Stonebriar Centre mall probably can't be too stimulating.
"It's not too bad," Avery says of his new environment. "I get to spend a lot more time in the car listening to music."
Ask him about power-play schematics and Avery mumbles. Ask about his iPod and he immediately chirps up: "Basia Bulat, she's from Canada. And Wilco. I've gotten into them lately."
Single and 28, he's begun testing Dallas' nightlife. Surprisingly, his favorite watering hole is The Balcony Club, the tiny jazz bar atop Lakewood Theater, where he took in a TV on the Radio concert two weeks ago.
But while Avery's lifestyle drifts far from hockey, he makes his living with the things he does on the ice. Nasty, deliberate, agitating things.
When we last saw the Stars they were re-kindling our hockey interest in the spring by winning two playoff series and pushing the eventual champion Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. But for too long the Stars have been too finesse. Too European. They needed an edge. They needed general manager Brett Hull's former Detroit roommate.
"We were a little too vanilla," Hull said at the controversial signing of Avery. "He's feisty and tenacious. He'll hit and fight and find ways to score. He's fearless. We need that."
But as the Stars stumbled out of the gate 4-6-2—despite owner Tom Hicks' contention that they should compete for the Cup—fingers inevitably began pointing at Avery. Captain Brenden Morrow admitted in training camp that he was among "the 98 percent of players that hated Avery." Teammates roll their eyes when Avery's name comes up, resigned to absorbing his tactics because his skills add a valuable dimension.
After an embarrassing loss in Boston recently in which Avery and Steve Ott drew penalties for fighting, arguing with referees and yelling at fans, Modano called the actions "idiotic and stupid."
"If that's what we're going for," he said, "then they need to find me an office job."
Avery has been, well, Avery. Elbowing opponents. Strategically placing his stick in the most sensitive of areas. Trash-talking. And, most important, being productive. Through 14 games, he led the Stars in penalty minutes (58) and plus-minus (+3).
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If we can forgive Terrell Owens for desecrating sports' most sacred star, surely we can pardon Avery for being chippy on the ice and eclectic off it. Right?
"It's just a matter of time until we come together," Avery says. "We're too good of a team. For me, it's just continuing to push and push, to the edge. That's how I've always played and always lived. That's what it's about for me."
Sean Avery isn't the Dallas Stars' "problem." But, if it makes you feel better, go ahead.
He's been called worse.