The Maven's Haven

  • Friday, December 28, 2012

    Greatest Rivalries: Avery's Infamous Screening of Brodeur

    There are many ways to describe Sean Avery depending on your rooting interest.

    For example you can include his personality, his outlook on life, as well as your view of hockey decorum and personal fan favorites.

    Because of his idiosyncratic behavior -- mostly as a Ranger -- Avery has alternately been called Puck's Bad Boy, The Great Gabbo and Superpest, among the kinder nicknames.

    In the minds of virtually every New Jersey Devil, circa 2008, -- and especially Martin Brodeur -- their descriptions are considerably less charming and considerably to the left of indiscreet.

    This pure hatred of Sean Avery did not happen overnight. Actually it grew over several years but crystallized into volcanic proportions during a playoff game at Madison Square Garden  on April 13, 2008.

    At that point in time the sizzling surliness that infused itself in any Battle of the Hudson exceeded the fury of any normal playoff game. This particular match surpassed all reason -- and all because of Avery and his unique brand of popularity in the Gotham.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Over the years I've done a number of book-signings at Cosby's sporting goods store on 31st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. One of the most obvious sights for me on any given game day there were the number of fans wearing Avery jerseys. As popular as stars such as Henrik Lundqvist, Jaromir Jagr and Marian Gaborik had been, more fans wore the Avery uniform than the jersey of any of the other players. And when I'd ask some of the Rangers faithful about their favorite they invariably named Sean as number one on the list. The secret word had to be "charisma.")

    Charisma has several ingredients that satisfy a Rangers fan, but especially when the foe happens to be a rival like the New Jersey Devils. But one playoff episode in particular cemented Sean as an all-time favorite Ranger. Not only did Avery create a disturbance in the New Jersey crease that will live in infamy for Devils fans but Sean un-nerved the normally unflappable Martin Brodeur. By doing so, Sean virtually turned a keenly competitive post-season series in the Blueshirts favor and inspired a brand, new NHL by-law appropriately labelled "The Avery Rule."

    That's why this particular MSG Network feature depicts why the Rangers-Devils confrontations match in intensity the Islanders-Blueshirts rivalry. During the 2007-2008 season, they had one thing in common both the Isles and Devs disliked Avery with equal intensity; the difference being that the Nassaumen missed the playoffs and the Devils had to put up with Sean for five more irritating games; the most explosive of which featured Mister Goalie vs. Mister Pest.

    Before examining the match itself you'll find it useful to discern just how a nondescript fourth-line player previously with both the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings emerged, almost magically, as a superhero on Seventh Avenue. And it didn't take very long either. Fans loved the Dead End Kids quality about Avery. Not very big for a major-leaguer, Sean seemed more than willing to take on the biggest foes -- if not physically than certainly vocally. Although he was born in Canada, Sean displayed a New York street smarts that instantly endeared him to the Rangers Faithful.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: I became one of Avery's precious few media buddies in a curious way early in his Rangers career at the club's practice facility in Greenburgh, New York. While in the MSG Network studio there for a feature we were doing, Avery walked in to prepare for an interview following my feature commentary. During a break in our shoot, I began schmoozing with Sean who I had never met before. I told him that his style reminded me of a player from yesteryear. "Chances are you've never heard of him," I said. "But you and this other guy have similar styles." Naturally, Sean wanted to know but I insisted that the fellow I had in mind played so long ago, it wouldn't mean anything to him. Then I mentioned that the player in question was Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay. "Sure I know him," Avery chuckled. "Remember, my first NHL team was the Red Wings and every once in a while Lindsay would come out and skate with us." It was obvious that Sean took the comparison as a complement because no one else would have thought to make the comparison than The Maven since I saw Lindsay play more than two-dozen games at the Old Garden both with Detroit and later Chicago. Sean and I were pals forever after that.)

    Before reaching the bright lights of New York, Avery really made noteworthy headlines only once and that took place during a previous labor dispute between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association. During the work stoppage of 2004-2005, Bob Goodenow was boss of the union which was deadlocked throughout the entire un-played season with the league. Although Goodenow's stewardship of the union was quietly criticized, the only player who publicly took a stand ripping Goodenow was none other than Sean. Although his issues may have been unpopular among his peers, Avery -- in typical fashion -- refused to be daunted by reprisals from any union members. In the end, Avery was right. Goodenow was unceremoniously dumped from his position as union boss in 2005.

    In terms of Avery being an asset to the Kings, the answer to that was that the L.A. sextet had no compunctions about trading him. Unobtrusively and with little fuss or fanfare, the Rangers acquired him from the Kings on February 5, 2007. Everything about his transfer to Seventh Avenue was uneventful.

    Uneventful, that is, until Sean donned his Rangers uniform in a game for the first time just one day later. As luck would have it New York's opponent that night (February 6) just happened to be the New Jersey Devils.

    It required about one period of play for The Great Gabbo to win the hearts of Rangers fans. His first order of business was listening to coach Tom Renney, which he did very well.  That done Sean then made it his business to take a mortgage on the rectangle of ice that happened to be goalie Martin Brodeur's crease.

    Needless to say, Mister Goalie took exception to Avery's antics and -- in that very first confrontation -- made his concern known to the referees. And if that proved to be the prelude of the Avery-Brodeur War, the first serious shot was fired by the new Ranger on a TV interview during the first intermission. To say that it was a stunner would be a case of grossly minimizing the chat because Sean immediately began discussing Brodeur -- in most unpleasant terms.

    "Marty's a whiner," Avery asserted for starters, "and he's always been a whiner. You just have to play through it and I'm going to be in his face all night." In this case Sean was a man of his word.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: At first it appeared that Avery would be available post-game for either a peroration on anything or just a few pithy comments. But it became apparent to me that Sean was playing a very coy cat-and-mouse game with the media; often completely ducking out of sight when most players were available for post-game chats. It also was clear that Sean loved playing for Tom Renney whose relaxed coaching style enabled him to do his thing whether Brodeur liked it or not. Of course, those on the Devils side of the MSG telecasts appreciated Sean's devilish behavior merely for its entertainment value. If nothing else, the Avery-Brodeur battles sure were entertaining.)

    On the other hand that "entertainment" value didn't elude the man who had become hockey's premier off-ice personality, Don (Grapes) Cherry, maestro of the CBC's Hockey Night In Canada segment, "Coach's Corner." The more purist-oriented Cherry took a dim view of Avery and pontificated on Sean's misbehavior.

    "I've known this kid since he was about sixteen-years-old," Cherry proclaimed. "Once a jerk, always a jerk."

    Certainly, Brodeur would agree but Avery couldn't have cared less. Sensing Brodeur's discomfort and the indisputable fact that he had gotten Marty's goat, Avery sought additional ways and means of driving Brodeur crazy. The next opportunity arrived on February 20th, less than three weeks after Sean's donning a Blue Shirt. During the second period of a Rangers-Devils game, in New Jersey, Avery skated in for a shot on goal. Since the puck didn't go in, Sean decided that something more eye-catching should take place so he deliberately collided with Marty, knocking the goaltender's mask clear off Brodeur's head.

    Furious by the invasion, Marty shoved Avery who responded by knocking the future Hall of Famer to the ice. The conflict had officially escalated and like Jack's Beanstalk, it would grow and grow and grow. But there was much more to Sean's game than anti-enemy antics. Yes, he could play and a lot better than many observers had believed possible. Granted, he never would be another Ted Lindsay but who cared about that?

    What also grew among the Rangers-watchers was an appreciation of Avery, the hockey player. He was a nifty stickhandler; a tenacious corner man, totally fearless, pretty good with his dukes and one who could deliver a dangerous wrist shot once he moved himself within firing distance; all that combined with his innate ability to be a disturber.

    "He was a huge player for us," recalled Martin Straka, a key member of that Rangers team. "The fans loved him and they got us going when Sean was playing well. As a player he had everything -- speed, could play the body, fight and score goals. His energy helped everybody on the team."

    In his first season as a Ranger -- following his trade from Los Angeles -- the Rangers were 17-6-6 down the stretch; thus the proof of his value was in the arithmetic. "Sean definitely gets under the skin of the other team," added Ryan Callahan. "That's his job and he's good at it. The whole team likes that and enjoys how good he does his job."

    The problem was that Avery's on-ice assets were mitigated by his idiosyncratic behavior off the pond. In Renney's view -- on balance -- it all measured out to Sean being more plus than minus. With Avery in the lineup, the Devils seemed distracted by Sean's presence. Beating up on the Ranger often appeared to be more a priority for the Devils than anything. Of all the Garden Staters forward David Clarkson made it his passion to nail Avery at any opportunity.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: It took me a while but I finally figured that the special quality that enabled Avery to succeed was what I call "The Knack." He seemed to have a "book" on just about every opponent worth antagonizing. Clarkson was one of them. I'll never forget one confrontation when Avery suckered Clarkson into engaging him in a fight. The trick was that Avery simply dropped his arms and let Clarkson toss him around like a rag doll. In the end New York wound up with the power play. I scored that as a win for Sean even though Clarkson mauled him. Likewise, Avery had Brodeur's number and also used his radar to figure out when the referee's were watching him or not. But when all was said and done, Puck's Bad Boy was skating a fine line, gambling that his antics wouldn't, in the end, catch up to him.)

    Even some of Sean's teammates began taking a dim view of his shenanigans. Back-up goalie Steve Valiquette was one of them. "He really doesn't shut up, ever," said Valiquette. "He practices on me so he's warmed up for Brodeur. And it's really annoying. I can see how it affects Marty and other guys."

    The running gunfight with Clarkson featured scuffles throughout the year, culminating with a fight on March 19, 2008. it proved to be the prelude to the main event -- Avery vs. Brodeur -- that would come in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Avery's presence was paying off, long-term, in The Battle of the Hudson. Over the entire campaign, the Blueshirts were 7-0-1 against the Devs; the one loss being a Shootout on the last day of the regular season.

    All of the above simply led to the bitter Rangers-Devils 2008 playoff meeting which opened at Prudential Center and appeared to be headed for overtime with the teams tied at one in the third period. But a Brodeur miscue -- could it have been Avery's mere presence in the New York lineup that distracted Marty? -- helped set up Ryan Callahan's go-ahead goal as the Rangers went on to win, 4-1, to take a one game lead in the series.

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Something surreal was taking place that was instantly apparent to me; and that was "The Avery Effect." Sean's every move both on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room, post-game, was taking center stage. Actually, The Great Gabbo's presence was virtually pushing the series itself to a supporting role. But because this scenario was so unique it caused jubilation on the Rangers side -- hey, they were winning, weren't they -- and consternation among the Devils.)

    Game Two, also in Newark, was scoreless entering the third period. The Rangers scored two goals in less than a minute with Jaromir Jagr and Avery picking up the tallies. John Madden got the Devils on board with a goal with only 1:23 left. The visitors won 2-1 for a two game lead in the series, heading back to Manhattan for the next two games.

    Then, it happened.

    Game Three was tied 1-1 at the end of the opening period as the Devils took a pair of penalties. Which brings us to the ultimate Avery-ism with Brodeur as the victim.

    What would become a legendary chapter in the rivalry unfolded in the second period with the Rangers on a five-on-three power play. As the Blueshirts moved into attack formation, Sean positioned himself in front of Brodeur. However his stance was nowhere near the traditional "screening" method with Avery's back to the goalie. This time Sean not only faced New Jersey's goaltender, he began waving his stick right snack in Brodeur's face.

    Chris Drury, the Rangers captain and a purist, himself, was stunned by his teammate's antics. "I heard the ref behind me warning Sean," said Drury who skated close to Avery. "I didn't know if Sean heard it. I just wanted to say, 'This is what the ref is saying.' I didn't want to lose the five-on-three."

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: By now it had become common knowledge that The Avery Act was not welcomed by all of his teammates; least of all such a straight-arrow captain as Drury. On the one hand, Chris had to think about victory first for his club but on the other hand, a veteran such as he had a very conservative view about what was right and what was wrong with Sean's shenanigans. Drury even seemed to be warning Avery not to pull off his stick-in-the-face prank while it actually was tormenting Brodeur; and I believe that in his heart Drury did not want to win a game with such an unseemly strategy. On the other hand, Rangers fans loved it because this was the Puck's Bad Boy they had embraced from the very beginning. Plus, what better victim than the Great Brodeur.)

    Following Avery's novel screen, the Devils cleared the zone but the New Yorkers immediately counterattacked and in the concluding tic-tac-toe maneuver it was Avery who beat Brodeur to put the Blueshirts ahead. A TSN analyst succinctly commented, "I've never seen anything like that in my life." But the game was far from over and eventually reached overtime tied at 3-3. The Devils prevailed when John Madden's shot ricocheted off Rangers defenseman Marc Staal's skate and past Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils won 4-3 and trailed the series two games to one.

    Jagr: "When you look at what Avery did with his stick in Marty's face, well there weren't any rules like that against it. Five-on-five you won't do that because the other team would have an advantage five-on-four. But five-on-three, I thought it was cool. I thought it was smart." That was Sean's thinking; there really were no NHL rules prohibiting his face-to-face-stick-to-face maneuver. However, apart from the citizens of Rangerville, public opinion -- media as well -- regarded the ploy as less than decorous and worth of rebuke; including one from Mister Goalie himself and only served to boil the rivalry to an even more heated level.

    "I've been watching games for thirty-three years," said Marty, "and I've never seen anything like that in my life. If it's within the rules, it's within the rules. The official came over and said it probably wasn't something that should be done. My opinion is that if it's within the rules, it's within the rules but it' s a five-on-three and I'm trying to get the puck. I'm trying to look around him. It was almost impossible because of the stick being so close to my face."

    Cherry: "You can't blame the referee because he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Could you believe what you were seeing? I've never seen anything like that and I've been in every league that's ever existed."

    (THE MAVEN'S COMMENT: I had mixed emotions -- to this day I still do -- about Avery's maneuver. From the Rangers viewpoint, I loved it. My theory always has been that a team does what it has to do to win provided it does so within the rules. At that moment in time there simply was no rule against the stick-in-the-goalie's-face a la Avery. Add to that the intensity of the rivalry and any Rangers type would have reason to support the ploy. On the Devils side, it was appalling to see a gentleman-goalie such as Brodeur humiliated in such a manner. From the entertainment (TV) angle, this was magnificent sports theater at its very best. Bottom Line: I loved it!)

    That the Devils went on to win a tremendously thrilling game almost was overshadowed by the Avery sideshow which suddenly was thrust into the NHL's crosshairs. What would Bettman, Inc. do about it? Or, specifically how would the NHL's warden, ex-Rangers coach Colin Campbell, handle the case?

    With dispatch, that's how. Campbell, whose full title was Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, studied the facts, reviewed the videotape, consulted with his staff and produced what amounted to an amendment to the Unsportsmanlike Conduct code which instantly became known as "The Avery Rule" or, as Campbell defined it as follows:

    "...The minor penalty will be interpreted and applied to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender's face for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make the play."

    Undaunted by their lone loss to the Devils -- nor neither hot nor bothered by Campbell's innovative rule amendment -- the Rangers won the next two games and conquered New Jersey four games to one. That, however, was not all there was to it because this particular play had a much anticipated curtain call and it all had to do with the traditional end-of-series handshake. Fans stood attentively to see exactly what would happen when Brodeur and Avery met face to face on the congratulatory line. Sure enough, Marty shook the hand of every victor except one; that of Avery.

    In a sense Brodeur's "missing palm" became just another cause celebre in the ongoing rivalry. What's more, Avery would not let well enough -- or should I say "bad enough" -- alone when it came to post-game comments. Confronted by the media in the winner's dressing room, Avery was queried about Brodeur's snub and wasted no time delivering yet another put-down of the future Hall of Famer.

    "Well," Sean dutifully explained, "everyone talks about how classy -- or un-classy -- I am and Fatso (Brodeur) there just forgot to shake my hand, I guess. We outplayed him. I outplayed him and we're going into the second round!"

    (THE MAVEN'S THOUGHTS: Egad! Calling Brodeur 'Fatso' was a colossal insult. In the end this episode revealed Avery at his effective best in every way -- goal, pugnacity, irreverent -- and at the top of his game, career-wise. By now he already had become distracted by several events including non-hockey Manhattan life. His other "career" as an intern for Vogue Magazine inspired considerable attention as well as his eventual trade and later return as a Ranger under John Tortorella. From the get-go it was evident that Torts and Gabbo were not on the same page. While Renney tolerated Avery's act, Tortorella was less than enthused. And when Torts went so far as to declare that Sean was not good enough to gain a spot on his lineup, Avery's career became null and void as a Ranger. All in all it was a good show while it lasted and, arguably, the best act involved the New Jersey goalie and his New York antagonist.)

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