Before he became a member of the New York Rangers last week, Sean Avery
had played only one game at Madison Square Garden, and that was during his rookie season with the Detroit Red Wings five years ago.
That lone March 17, 2002, visit to the World's Most Famous Arena was limited exposure for sure, but it obviously made a very big impression on Avery. Asked to list his favorite place to play on the road as part of an entry in the 2006-07 Los Angeles Kings media guide, Avery had no trouble coming up with his answer: Madison Square Garden.
"I had only played here once, but I just liked walking to the rink and being in a city as big as New York and having the rink right there," he said. "And the fans, too. I think they're pretty passionate, and I remember when I was here how hard of a time they give the visiting team. That's the type of atmosphere I like to play in. I'm kind of an intense guy, and when the fans are intense, it's easy to play. It makes it like having an extra guy on the ice."
Perhaps the Kings staff knew of Avery's love for the New York when they traded the gritty left wing to the Rangers on Feb. 5, or it might have just been a happy coincidence. In any case, Avery's enthusiasm for his new hockey home is evident. It was easy to spot him at the MSG Training Center last week as he admired the photos of great Garden moments that hang in the training facility's hallways.
Avery certainly loves The Garden, and if his first three games in a Rangers uniform are any indication, it's safe to say that the folks who fill it every night for hockey already love him back. Since joining the team for its Feb. 6 game at New Jersey, Avery has provided a tremendous and unmistakable spark.
He had an creative assist on a Karel Rachunek goal in his first game and followed that up with his first goal as a Ranger in the 5-0 rout of Tampa Bay on Friday night at MSG. He then traveled with the team down to Washington, helping the Blueshirts knock off the Caps 5-2.
Avery has already captured the imagination of the Garden Faithful, who are famous for embracing hard-nosed players with a visible passion for the game. Avery fit that mold long before he arrived in New York, developing a reputation as one of the NHL's most competitive players -- the kind of guy who will do whatever it takes to help a team win.
Given his instant popularity, it's only a matter of time before those No. 16 Avery jerseys become a common sight at MSG. That would be a great tribute to a 26-year-old winger who has made a name for himself in the NHL against significant odds.
As a boy growing up in greater Toronto, where he rooted for the hometown Maple Leafs, Avery set his sights on one day playing in the NHL. But by the time he entered major-junior hockey in 1996, the deck was already stacked against him. Avery had the determination and skill to play at the highest level, but scouts were concerned about his size.
At 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Avery is a perfect fit in the current NHL. Nearly a decade ago when he was coming of age for the draft, however, Avery was not the sort of player most teams sought. Although he had put in two solid years with the Ontario Hockey League's Owen Sound Platers, his offensive numbers weren't staggering enough to make scouts see past his size. He therefore went undrafted in 1998 and then again in 1999, despite scoring 36 goals and 84 points as a 19-year-old with Owen Sound and Kingston.
"When I was coming up for the draft, it was 1997 or 1998, and it was that time when the league was going really big and everybody was big," Avery recalled. "I remember Philly and some of the other teams were just big, big, big. The draft kind of swayed from smaller guys, and I didn't get picked. It actually worked out to be a good thing, because I got to pick what training camp I wanted to go to, and I got to go to Detroit."
In some ways, slipping through the draft was the very best thing that could have happened to Avery, because it gave him a challenge.
"I didn't really know if I'd be drafted, but I think that I'm arrogant enough and have a big enough chip on my shoulder that it didn't really affect me too much," Avery said. "If anything, it probably did motivate me a little, I don't know if I would say that much, because I knew ultimately what my goal was."
Avery attended the Detroit Red Wings training camp in 1999, earning his first professional contract. The0 Wings returned him to Kingston of the OHL for 1999-00, and he responded with another 84-point season. He also began to establish himself as a physical force, racking up 215 penalty minutes in his final junior season. Ready to take the next step in 2000-01, Avery was assigned to Detroit's AHL franchise in Cincinnati, where he finished sixth in the league with 304 penalty minutes.
By the time Avery got to Detroit, the Wings were already in the midst of a dynasty that included three Stanley Cup championships in six years. Being around such a great team was a unique opportunity for any player Avery's age.
"For a first-year player, I don't think there's a better situation you could ever be in," he said. "I got to watch basically what it was like to win a Stanley Cup and be a part of the day-to-day interaction with those guys and see what it takes to be a great team and a winning team. It was fun."
Midway through the 2001-02 season, the Wings called Avery up to Detroit, and he scored two goals and accumulated 68 penalty minutes over 36 NHL games. Because he did not appear in the 2002 playoffs, however, Avery was a spectator to the Wings' Stanley Cup run that season. The following year, he spent some more time with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins before catching on full-time in Detroit, where he continued to make his presence known as someone who could not be intimidated in any situation.
One of the veterans who reached out to Avery in his early NHL years was Red Wings alternate captain Brendan Shanahan, who would later be reunited with Avery on the Rangers. Despite their 11-year age difference, the two became fast friends.
"I was really the only young guy, because Detroit was quite an older team back then," said Avery. "I think there were only two of us under 25, and Shanny was great right from day one. I remembered him from training camps earlier. He was always that type of guy. I don't think that's changed any. I think it's definitely the same, for sure."
At the trading deadline in 2003, the Red Wings sent Avery, defenseman Maxim Kuznetsov and two draft picks to Los Angeles in a blockbuster deal for star defenseman Mathieu Schneider, a former Rangers blueliner. Going to L.A. came as a shock at first, but Avery soon realized he had a great opportunity with the Kings.
"It took me about a year to adjust," he said. "Coming from Toronto and then living in the Midwest of the U.S. were two similar experiences. Going out to California, and basically Hollywood, was a little bit of a shock at first, and I think it had me on my heels a bit. But then I just kind of embraced it and had a good time with it and enjoyed playing there for the most part."
Avery finished the 2002-03 regular season in Los Angeles and then joined the team's AHL affiliate in Manchester, N.H., for the playoffs. Becoming a key member of the Kings' roster in the fall of 2003, Avery played his first full season in 2003-04 and led the NHL with 261 penalty minutes, including a career-high 29 in a New Year's Eve game at Phoenix.
After spending the NHL's lockout season in Finland and the United Hockey League, Avery returned to the Kings in the fall of 2005 as one of the league's most feared players. Yet for Avery, who again captured the penalty-minutes crown, the new NHL was also fertile ground for scoring. In 2005-06, he began to develop an identity as a tough guy who could also be a legitimate scoring threat along the lines of past stars like Dave "Tiger" Williams and Bob Probert.
His nearly four years in Los Angeles came to a close last week, but Avery said the experience of being traded was a very positive one.
"At first, I think I felt a couple of different things: relieved and, I would say, extremely happy. I still am. I'd say I'm quite happy," said Avery. "When you first get the (trade) call, you're wondering where it's gonna be, and this is the only place that I really wanted to go, so I think I lucked out. And hopefully, I'm here for awhile."
By the time Avery joined the Rangers, he was already on a pace to exceed the 15 goals and 39 points he scored last season. His scoring numbers could continue to rise dramatically with the Rangers, since Avery feels the style of play in the Eastern Conference will suit him even better than what he experienced in a career previously limited to the Western Conference.
"I think it's a lot tighter in the Western Conference defensively," Avery said. "I think it's a little bit more open in the East. I think it's a little bit more skill-oriented and skating and making plays. Which is good, you know. It's exciting because I've kind of been in the West where it's a chip-and-dump type game. Here you get a little bit more room and a little bit more time to think about making a play, so I like it so far. ... If you're a skilled guy and you can make plays, it's definitely more of an advantage. It's easier on your body and it's a little bit more fun, too."
Avery is also thrilled to be playing in front of those same MSG fans who caught his attention five years ago during his first visit to the building.
"New York is a sports town," said Avery. "You know, L.A. had good fans and fans that knew the game, but here it seems like everybody in the whole rink is there to watch a game, and they know what's going on. So it gives you a little bit more pressure and keeps you on your toes, and it probably makes you play better, I think."
Relocating hasn't been the problem for Avery that it was when he arrived in Los Angeles. That's because the West Coast's biggest city was good preparation for the East Coast's.
"It seems like these two cities are a perfect swap, Avery said. "First of all, I know a lot of people who are bi-coastal between New York and LA. So I have a lot of friends here that I met through L.A. friends and so on. It's probably the best case you could go to, other than staying in L.A."
While the off-ice adjustment has been smooth, the on-ice adjustment has been remarkable. Through his first three games, Avery looked like someone who had been playing with these Rangers for years, appearing entirely comfortable with all of new teammates.
"You just got to realize who you're playing with, and you can't really do too much," he said. "You just try to go out and play your game and complement the guys you're playing with, and really just not get in the way. That's what I've tried to do and just add a bit of energy and try to make some plays, and it's worked out so far. It's only been three games, though, so hopefully we're still talking about this 15 (games) later."