The first time Sean Avery tries anything, the first time he shoulders Alex Ovechkin, or rakes him with a stick, or mouths off, it will be tempting for Ovechkin to retaliate in kind by saying something like: "Hello, princess. Is that Gucci you're wearing under your hockey girdle, or did you go with a thong?" There's a pattern to Avery's provocations: He's all about messing with the opponent's manhood, suckering him into a loss of composure and onto low ground. That's what Avery counts on, which is why the best thing Ovechkin can do is disappoint him.
The Capitals are expecting some antics from Avery, prepared for it, actually. "Wouldn't you do what you do best?" asked Coach Bruce Boudreau. Avery's role in the first-round series between the Capitals and the New York Rangers will be to agitate Ovechkin if he can, and in general to be "a really good thorn in our side," Boudreau predicts. They're braced for his irritating act, the swaggering belligerence clad in a high-fashion wardrobe — will he wear Dries van Noten to the game, or Alexander McQueen? — and the combination of raw knuckles and condescension.
Avery's tactics are all about control; it's as if his hand is on a dial manipulating the temperatures of others. He upsets his victims with crudeness, but what should bother them most is his calculation. It's all a set-up, he goads others by questioning their toughness, gets the best of them by honing in on their insecurities, then leaves them regretting the loss of self-control, and often walks away the winner.
Take the way Avery incited Bruins goalie Tim Thomas last week in an effort to shift the momentum of a 1-0 game. During a timeout, Avery skated past Thomas and casually clipped him in the back of the head with his stick. You could almost see Thomas's inflamed thoughts: "I can't just sit here and take that, or everyone will think I'm soft." While Avery glided away feigning blithe innocence, Thomas lost it and chased him across the ice and punched him from behind, arms windmilling insanely. By the time the refs separated them and sorted it out, Thomas was as guilty as Avery and both players were given equal penalties.
Nothing was more premeditated than the vulgar remark Avery made earlier this season about Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames, who was dating Avery's ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert. Avery, who was then playing for the Dallas Stars, approached reporters the morning of a game against the Flames and asked if a camera was present. "I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my [derogatory term]. I don't know what that's about," he said.
It was purely intentional, there was nothing offhanded about the remark, obviously intended to disturb the Flames on game day. (With that one, Avery got a stronger response than he bargained for: The NHL suspended him for "inappropriate remarks," and the Stars cut him. The Rangers picked him up only with deep reservations.)
This brings us to the heart of why Avery is so detested, why he wins player polls as the most hated man in the league. Critics don't resent his physical antagonism, which he has plenty of, but rather his implication that he's the only smart guy on the ice and everyone else is stupid, and that he's merely using the league to his own self-promotional ends.
"They haven't figured out that heroes and villains are what sells," he said recently to ESPN.
The only thing more premeditated than Avery on the ice is Avery off the ice, where he's equally adroit at toying with conventional ideas of manhood for self-promotion. It's a longtime preoccupation of his, along with fashion. Last summer he made a show of working as an intern at Vogue (he wore shorts suits to work), and he loves to give interviews in which he admits to playing with doll clothes as a kid, confesses that fall is his "favorite fashion season," and chatters on about flannel Woolwich vests and black long-sleeved Henleys. His whole gig is, "I'm man enough to admit I like women's shoes, and tough enough to defend it in the rink."
He comes on like a vacuous trendissimo, with his black-on-black costumes, $12,000 Audemars Piguet wristwatches, Phillipe Starck references, patent leather Yves St. Laurent hightops, and front-row seats at Fashion Week next to Winona Ryder. He frequents powdery night spots with boldface dates such as Mary Kate Olsen — has the guy ever been with anyone not famous? — opens a bar in Tribeca, and gets a screenplay commissioned about his life.
"I'd rather hang myself than talk about sports," he told the New York Times style section, in an impossibly pretentious interview that included rock shrimp tempura and the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
It's all a bit much and possibly a giant pose, which every now and then he half-admits.
"When you see a guy walking out of a game with a broken nose and a busted lip, and two days later you see him at a Vera Wang show, it's probably confusing to some people," he told Newsweek. "Or intriguing."
He so obviously wants to be somebody. But take away Vogue, and his striving efforts to marry his fractious on-ice persona to downtown-chic, and what's left is just "a really good hockey player," says Boudreau, "who can play with the best of them."
All of which Ovechkin seems to know without being told. Ovechkin has concluded that the best way to deal with Avery is to treat him like a nobody, instead of somebody. Asked if he thought Avery would try to mess with him, Ovechkin pursed his lips with distaste, and considered the question only briefly, then he smiled, and shrugged. "I don't care," he said.
It's the right answer.