When Sean Avery calls, you’re not sure what to expect. That’s how he’s designed it.
Once “hockey’s most hated man,” Avery still wears the title proudly. And fair enough. Among many contenders — say Matthew Barnaby, Claude Lemieux, Matt Cooke, etc. — Avery, arguably, played the heel better than any. He was violent. He was a pest. He was brash and cocky. At times, he was vile.
So when I spoke with Avery this week about his tell-all memoir, Offside: My Life Crossing the Line, I honestly wasn’t sure where we’d end up. Especially when there was no answer at the number I called, at the time scheduled by the publisher’s publicist. He called back an hour later, confused by the number on his phone — as though he’s not currently on a massive media junket to promote his book. An interview? Okay, sure, but he’d need five minutes. And so — 20 minutes later — when he called again, I was convinced I’d be chatting with the loutish form of Avery that we’ve been conditioned to loathe.
In Offside, Avery doesn’t shy away from any of that version of himself. They don’t hand out awards or hang banners for the game’s most despised, so Avery penned his own tribute to the art. But what interested me more is the look at Avery as more than just a villain.
There has always been an element of calculation to Avery. During his playing days he was a man fascinated by cosmopolitan life — always looking to life beyond the game. He was an active proponent of same-sex marriage equality, and has worked on campaigns to battle homophobia and trans-phobia in sports. He’s been an intern at Vogue magazine and a restaurateur, and has also worked in creative marketing.
There should be no surprise that he’s now turned his hyperactive attention to acting, training for a career in TV and film.
It’s as though the reviled hockey thug was always just a single part in a career of many roles.
“The similarities between theatre, film and television and sports are immense. Both of those lines of work allow you to put some sort of uniform on and to do things that you’re not allowed to do in regular life,” he says. “To a certain extent, you’re playing a character. When you’re allowed to beat another man, that’s playing some sort of character, because that’s not how we live in real life. I don’t say that as an excuse; I saw that as a truth. That’s one of the things I loved about the game. One of the things I loved about it most.”
Avery was first drawn to sports when he was young as an outlet for his hyperactivity. (He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in his early 20s and was prescribed Adderall, which he describes a “performance-enhancing drug that actually works.”)
“In school, I would get sent to the corner,” Avery says. “In hockey, I would get promoted to the second line or first line, so it was an easy choice.”
But as Avery neared the game’s highest levels as an undersized player — he’s five-foot-10 — he was told he didn’t have a shot at making it. So, if he was going to get to the NHL, he was going to have to disrupt that narrative by being as big of a personality as he could be, on and off the ice.
“I found this backdoor entrance,” he says. “The conversation immediately changed. It wasn’t about my size anymore. It’s about ‘How do we control this player?'”
When Avery retired in 2012, we all could have predicted it wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear from him. His is a play of many acts. That’s important to him.
“I see Twitter trolls who take shots at me because I’ve tried numerous things since [I’ve been] done playing,” he says. “But that’s exactly what you need to do. It’s the exact opposite of failure.”
The isolation that many players feel when the game is done, he says, can be deadly. He believes it had a fatal effect on his friend Derek Boogaard, who died of a drug overdose at age 28 after battling an addiction to painkillers. At the time Boogaard had been sidelined by concussions and — Avery says — effectively banished by the New York Rangers.
“Time is more of your enemy when you’re done playing than anything,” he says. “[It’s] dangerous because, for 10 years, or for however long your career is, you’re expected to only focus on one thing. And you’re somewhat ostracized if you focus on other things. The problem with that is that the moment they take the jersey away, you’re expected to focus on all these other things instantly. Immediately. And it’s not even about money at that point — [you could] have all the money in the world. But when your identity is taken from you and you have time, that’s the most dangerous after-affect. That’s what kills guys.”
This version of Avery is reflective. Thoughtful — even poignant. You wonder, of course, if it’s all contrived. This is the same guy who once mocked his teammate’s wife for not being glamorous enough; the guy who made crass comments about a famous-ex girlfriend to goad her new boyfriend before they played each other; the guy who had a rule created just to keep him from harassing goalies in cartoonish fashion.
But over the course of a half-hour chat, it’s hard to detect Avery, the most hated man in hockey. He’s there, somewhere, of course. He lives in the pages of his book as well, ready to grow dusty and old while whatever comes next unfolds by his own design.