Hockey's Hotspur tells all
Sean Avery, once the most hated man in hockey, is looking to become an actor, after having already written a book, Offside, which might be described as Ken Dryden's The Game rewritten by Hunter Thompson
Sean Avery wants to start off with some Shakespeare. Maybe Henry IV, Part 1.
"The Hotspur?" his acting coach, Kelly Kimball, suggests.
The formerly most hated man in hockey nods to himself. He's done this one a lot. Hotspur – a brawling, charismatic loudmouth who finally picks the wrong fight and gets done in for it.
Avery raises a hand, Olivier-style.
"My liege, I did deny no prisoners. But I remember …" – a small pause of forgetfulness – "… FUCK."
Kimball, a small woman with a big presence, flinches. Avery paces around the makeshift stage in her Greenwich Village studio. He's dressed in tight tip-to-toe black, like some beatnik bodybuilder. He's ignoring the photographer crouched beneath him, while giving her his best side.
Avery, 37, has done a bunch of things since falling sideways out of the NHL five years ago. He's been a fashion person, a restaurateur and a bar owner. The sort of things rich, connected New Yorkers who bore easily do.
About a year ago, Avery decided he wanted to become an author and an actor.
The writing didn't come easily – though his memoir will be released shortly – but the acting seemed natural. Few hockey pros have ever treated the game so much like a one-man show.
He found Kimball online. Like just about everything Avery has ever done, he overdoes this, too. He goes every day of the week, often twice.
"Which is more than any student I've ever had," Kimball says. "Times five."
After he's got through the Shakespeare, Avery wants to find something more prosaic. He's flipping through a four-inch-thick binder he's brought along. It contains every monologue he's learned, tabbed and colour-coded. He's very quiet in here.
Does everyone have one of these binders?
"Only Sean," Kimball says, then mouths, " Very anal."
Kimball didn't know who Avery was when he arrived, but other people in the studio spotted him straight off. Since he's a working-class New York Rangers cult hero married to a supermodel, Hilary Rhoda, Avery's Page Six glamour has proved resilient.
Kimball found one of his mid-game freakouts on YouTube. Like most hockey scolds and Defenders of the Great Tradition, she was horrified. Friends suggested she hire security to just happen to hang around whenever Avery was there. Especially at the more "volatile" improvs.
That wasn't necessary. Avery says he has trouble accessing anger now that he's given up hockey.
Shortly after he started the lessons, he burst into tears while driving alone to Muskoka. A Tragically Hip song came on and flipped a switch in him.
"I was thinking about Gord and life and the paradox and the journey and all that," Avery says. "I hadn't cried in years."
But since tough guys and sociopaths are his likeliest route into Hollywood, Kimball is pushing him in that direction. She calls this "locating the rage spot."
At her suggestion, Avery's next effort is a piece from Glengarry Glen Ross, the "Who ever told you could work with men?" speech.
Avery gets through it fine, but you can see him acting. Face screwed up, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted. Kimball's soothing him throughout, speaking in an exaggerated whisper. She reminds him to project to the centre and back of the room, where I'm sitting.
Avery's not entirely happy with his performance. He's starting to get frustrated.
"Back when I was playing, this would be easy," he says. "I would be like …" – his face changes suddenly, becomes slack and expressionless; his eyes deaden; his shoulders fall; he's bent over, but he looks bigger – "… I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill you. You better not get out on the ice. I'm going to two-hand you. I'm going to baseball-swing you. And it's going to hurt."
He's staring directly through me.
And you suddenly get why people were afraid of Sean Avery.
Since it's New York, no one says anything
He still keeps a hockey schedule – two workouts a day, morning and night, with a nap in the afternoon.
"I told my wife that if I start to go, tell me. That's a slow death."
Eight months ago, she told him. So here he is at an upscale gym at 8:30 in the morning, doing wind sprints on a treadmill. This is where Avery wants to start the interview.
A few stationary joggers stare over with a, "Wait, isn't that …?" look. But since it's New York, no one says anything.
Though he has often said he played a character on the ice, Avery isn't much different in civilian life. He's a chatty provocateur who likes liking things – film, art, fashion – that hockey players aren't supposed to care about. Did you see Wind River? Because he saw it four times the week it was released.
Most off-duty pros walk around in public with their heads down, terrified of being spotted. Avery has the chin-up swagger of a man who enjoys being noticed.
He didn't finish school and that has created a small gap in his self-perception. Over the course of his memoir, he reminds you three times that he modelled tuxedos on Good Morning America and once that he made out with Scarlett Johansson.
In person, he's easy to like – earnest, funny, enjoys people. When a 40-ish woman approaches him in a diner for an autograph, Avery is so at ease with her that at first I think they're friends.
He goes to Broadway two or three times a month to see a play. Any play. He's lived here for most of a decade and still approaches Manhattan like a teenager who has just popped out of Penn Station for the first time and can't get over how tall the buildings are.
There is no hint of the darkness that occasionally fell over him during his career, and always to his detriment. All of that energy is focused backward.
"They're either going to pretend it didn't happen, or they're going to come after me," Avery says.
He's talking about the NHL's reaction to his coming autobiography, Offside.
(In a nod to America's hockey IQ, it'll be called Ice Capades in the United States.)
You probably have an idea of how Sean Avery would write a book. Whether you admired his iconoclasm or tolerated his boorishness or despised him on general principles, you probably think you have Avery pegged. If you were to visualize his literary process, it'd be a man attacking a box of paper with a machete.
Though it is often sharp and keenly observed – especially its insights on the NHL lockout and the rhythms of life as a pro – there is a lot of that sort of thing in there.
On his former L.A. coach Andy Murray: "… an alien impersonating a human, and not doing a great job of it."
On teammate Jason Williams: "… a kiss-ass, one-dimensional automaton."
On Dave Lewis, but somehow looping in John Tortorella: "Lewis was a very good coach, but even John Tortorella would have to work pretty hard not to win with this crew (still, he could manage it.)"
On Martin Brodeur: "a fucking dirtbag."
Forget about not pulling punches. Avery gets his enemies down on the page and kicks them bloody for several paragraphs. Brodeur is a particular target, with a bunch of ugly stuff about the goalie's private life that a lot of people know, but choose to leave alone.
As he runs, Avery is anxious to get my thoughts on the book. Did I read it all? Did I like it? Is there anything there I would have changed? Is it too much?
When he asks the last question, I mention Brodeur. That one seemed excessive.
Avery jumps off the treadmill, pulls back and bugs his eyes so that he can fully take in my softness.
"Why? He did it, didn't he? He is a dirtbag," Avery says. "Am I wrong?"
Well, maybe not if you're Sean Avery.
There are two types of people in Avery's world – those who are on his side, and those who must be destroyed.
If you fall in the latter category, there is no sense of proportion in his response. It's full-on war. A lot of pros bring this attitude to the park. Avery lives it.
His main targets, like his coach in New York, Tortorella, get repeated literary beatings. A few others get drive-bys (on one opponent: "I asked what it felt like to be the only NHL star player making millions a year to actually get dumped by his wife in his prime.")
Avery is taken aback that I am taken aback.
At first, he's defensive – "I never took a shot that was above and beyond the truth."
But Avery has a way of talking himself through things. It's like watching a man put himself on the couch and do auto-psychoanalysis.
"I honestly don't even think about it."
"Does that make me a bad person?" – said like it's an honest question.
"Now I'm wondering if people are thinking about it."
In the space of 10 seconds, Avery has gone from indignation to something verging on remorse.
The bile is leavened by Avery's reverence for everyone who was ever kind to him, especially older men.
His key triumvirate is taken from his first experiences in the NHL – Red Wings veterans Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios and Brett Hull. They are "gods" and "savages" – highest praise in the Avery lexicon. If you think NHLers live like rock stars, Avery is here to tell you that you guessed right.
Those will be the highlights for readers looking for the hockey soap opera, the who-did-what-to-whom and this-one-crazy-night stories. That won't bother the NHL.
What may bother the league very much is the more substantive, process-oriented stuff. Like how agents manipulate players. Or the general incompetence of many of the top people in the game. Or the routine use of prescription drugs.
Avery says he played many games on a combination of painkillers (Toradol) and amphetamines (Adderall), administered by a trainer under a doctor's supervision. Toradol in particular comes off as one of the book's most compelling characters – "You feel indestructible. While having a permanent orgasm."
It goes on like that. When Avery asked for my key takeaway from the book, I said it was that I need to get some Toradol.
Avery cocks a grin, "Toradol was the reason I couldn't wait for the playoffs. I knew I'd be getting a shot before every game."
Is it like this for everyone?
"Everyone. That's another thing they don't want you to know."
There are a lot of things the NHL doesn't want you to know that Avery would really like to tell you about. This book is Ken Dryden's The Game rewritten by Hunter Thompson. Some readers may get lost in recaps of the "sloppy seconds" incident, but it would be a shame. This is the NHL you don't get from post-game scrums.
Avery says the book is a way of sealing off the past. In a couple of years, he'd like to be an established actor. He's been on a couple of auditions for major parts in the past month. His buddy, director Peter Berg, has promised to put him in his next movie.
But if you could, would you still play?
Avery is of two minds. He says he doesn't regret leaving when he did, having just turned 32.
"I wasn't growing with anyone. They were all staying on the same wavelength," Avery says. "Growth made me an outcast."
But … "I could play today in a heartbeat." He figures he'd need two months to get in game shape.
When Avery says he can play, he's not talking about shoring up the third line for some mid-table team. He means adding something to an entertainment product trapped in robotic stasis.
"There is zero individuality in the NHL today. You don't see anybody in the league with any flavour," Avery says. "That's what I don't understand about the young guys. None of them have the urge to be stars."
He waves his hand in the air – "They all look the same to me."
A book with three real love interests
We're getting near the end of this thing, but Avery still has a lot of questions. How does journalism work? Who do you talk to? Do they all tell you things, or what? I have never met a published writer who is so innocently taken by the 'glamour' of the exercise.
One thing bothers him. The idea that people will read this and take away from it things he may not have intended has got into Avery's head. Like Shanahan. On the stuff about him and Chelios falling out over the way the players' union handled the lockout. It'll be okay, right? He'll see what I meant?
I suggest to him that the issue may be that people don't read the whole book. They may just skim a single page and take it amiss.
"Right," Avery says. "I didn't think of it like that."
We're standing on the sidewalk in front of his Noho apartment building. Avery has a faraway look. You feel the need to reassure him.
I say that while the book is full of liaisons, it has three real love interests – Shanahan, Chelios and Hull. They are the focus of romance here.
Avery just nods.
We stand there for another minute silently and when I look back over Avery is about to cry. His eyes have reddened. His lower lip is trembling.
"I get emotional thinking about it," he says. "How they shaped me. They turned me into a man, even more than my own father."
It's a moment. Avery is showing you the uncomfortable kid who never quite fit in, and handled it by inviting – sometimes begging – people to hate him. This is the real Avery, the one that very few people in hockey understood.
As he says it, a guy in his 30s glances over while walking by, takes a second to register what he's seen and turns on his heel. This has happened a few times already, but you just know this guy's going to be the one to say something stupid – "AVES!" or "What up, bro?" or "Are you crying?"
Avery has felt him turn. The guy is still thinking about it. Just as he's about to take his first step, Avery's head pops up. I can't see his eyes, but the guy can.
Whatever he sees in there persuades him to turn again and walk away.