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The L: New York seems never to be in shortage of enigmatic, polarizing athletes, but few befuddle and vex like the aforementioned Ranger wing Sean Avery. This is an individual who, despite his manifest abilities, seems to wear out his welcome wherever he goes with a kind of willful expediency. I know you are a fan of Avery's. How should Rangers fans metabolize his idiosyncrasies, and why should they love him?
Ratso: Ranger fans already love Avery and for good reason. The Rangers record with Avery in the lineup is decidedly better than without the league's premier agitator. Avery is the Babe Ruth of Blabber. A few pointed barbs on the ice-"sloppy seconds" anyone?-and the Grate One reduces his opponents into slobbering Neanderthals hell-bent on dismembering him, which opens up the ice for his linemates. Case in point: Avery plays his first game the other night after coming back from a knee injury and he's instrumental in two of the three Rangers goals against Anaheim. First he entices a Duck defenseman to maul him resulting in a Ranger power play goal. Then, on a subsequent power play, he moves the puck behind the net and goads future hall of famer Scott Niedermayer into leaving his perch in front of his goalie to level Avery, which leaves Ranger rookie Anisimov all alone in front of the goal for an easy tap in and his first NHL goal and the icing on the cake of another victory.
And Avery works on his psychological warfare-doing painstaking research on his opponents and finding their psychological Achilles heels, then tailor-making his on-ice comments to induce their maximum psychosis quotients. I don't think you'll have to worry about Sean wearing out his welcome in New York. He's probably the smartest hockey player I've met and he was born to shine in the Big Apple. After a short self-imposed exile in Dallas, thousands of miles from the Beatrice Inn, he extricated himself from an untenable situation where the senior "leadership" of the team, hypocrites like Modano and Turco, made his life miserable. I'm sure Sean is still chuckling that the self-righteous owner of the Stars, Tom Hicks, is still on the hook for half of his salary the next few years. Lost in all the brouhaha over his verbal dexterity is the fact that Aves is an extremely talented passer, a fleet skater, and someone who plays every shift with amazing intensity. He's a perfect match with Rangers coach Tortorella. [More on him later.]
The L: What is your view of the NHL's future, in light of the bankruptcy of the Phoenix franchise and ongoing difficulties in expanding the popularity of the sport outside of its wheelhouse of Canada and the Northeastern US? As a sport which has expanded and contracted with the relative frequency of an accordion, what is the best prescription for bringing the most exciting product to the largest audience? Scaled-back ambitions or an optimistic view of recapturing the sort of coast-to-coast popularity experienced during the Islanders dynasty and subsequent Gretzky boom?
Ratso: There are cynical conspiracy theorists who maintain that NBA Commissioner David Stern dispatched his former associate Gary Bettman to the NHL to sabotage a sport that was on the cusp of surpassing Stern's hoop dreams. Certainly you could point to the lockout as proof positive that NHL owners (with the exceptions of Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle and Washington's brilliant AOL founder Ted Leonsis) make Marge Schott look like a brain surgeon. I'm extremely dubious about putting a hockey team in a desert or in an environment where the only ice one can ever encounter is floating in their cocktails. Look, if you want to put a hockey team in fucking Phoenix at least have the foresight to build a new arena close to where your potential audience lives, not 30 miles away! You have the guy who founded Blackberry, a good ole Canadian billionaire, who wants nothing more than to own an NHL franchise yet he's blackballed from NHL ownership in favor of a myriad of shady businessmen who went straight from their executive suites to the local clinker. I have two words for Commissioner Bettman: background checks.