Stars co-General Manager Brett Hull, who accompanied Avery to his hearing with Bettman in New York Thursday and the man most responsible for Avery coming to Dallas last summer as a free agent, indicated that Avery has acknowledged he has some psychological issues to work through and that the most important aspect of these developments was Avery’s willingness to get the help he needs.
“Sean has admitted to some problems in his life, and don’t assume that’s alcohol or drugs because that’s not what it is,” Hull clarified. “But he’s got some issues to deal with during this time off. He’s going to take and go and seek some help to get the ball rolling to get those things taken care of so we don’t have to do this any more. For me, the first thing is, you got to take care of the individual. I know him personally and he is a good man, he’s a caring man. We’ve got to fix him first and the hockey player is very secondary.”
One of the key factors dictating the length of Avery’s suspension was the litany of events that has followed him around his career - from being sent home from the Los Angeles Kings for the final few games of the 2005-06 season to waving his stick and hands in Martin Brodeur’s face last spring in the playoffs to his venomous exchange with some fans in Boston last month, among others.
“Sean had been warned over the last year that he was getting close to the line too many times,” Commissioner Bettman said. “There were probably a couple of times where he may have been over the line, but we couldn’t verify it based on the circumstances. He had a session within the last year with (NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations) Colin Campbell where he was warned, and he had a session with me during the playoffs where he was warned. So at the end of the day, I felt we had to punish him and make clear that this was not appropriate. And from a disciplinary standpoint, I felt based on other cases and other situations of inappropriate comments, this was the right number.”
Hull pointed out that he had discussed some of the previous incidents with Avery and why they were unacceptable.
“They were more of outbursts towards fans, officials and what not,” Hull said. “I tried to explain to him that to be a Dallas Star comes the responsibility to carry yourself with character and I guess the bottom line was, he’s a unique animal as a player. I said, ‘Do your thing as a player, that’s what makes you a great player, but you can’t embarrass the organization. That’s something that we won’t stand for.’ When Tom Hicks, who’s pretty hands-off and lets us do our thing and run the team, steps in immediately, you know it’s a serious issue.”
Center Mike Modano acknowledged that he thought the reputation of the Stars was damaged over the recent events.
“I’m sure it’s a little tarnished,” Modano said. “We’ve all been here long enough to build something that’s positive throughout the community, throughout the league, our perception that we’ve always tried to hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability with the fans and within the game and respecting the game and the organization.”
Hull indicated that Avery was aware of the history and felt that all the previous problems he’s been involved with stem from this deep-rooted personal issue he has and that he recognizes it needs to be addressed.
“I think the first thing, and we all realize that, when you try to fix yourself, the first step is to admit that there’s something wrong,” Hull said. “And I’m not sure why it hasn’t been talked about before, because it’s incident after incident and finally it came to a head and the NHL stepped in. We have to fix him before anything and with his admittance to needing that, it’s a great step for him as a person. The (NHL Players Association) has a great counseling program and they will lead him in the right direction to find out what the next steps are after figuring out - there’s been a lot of words thrown about, anger management, depression, whatever it is - but that’s what they need to find out and move forward from there. So it’s not a four-game process. I think he’s just using this time in the four games to get the ball rolling.”
Hull was encouraged even more that it was Avery who first brought up the issue of getting counseling.
“That’s the good part. It was brought up by him, he made the first phone call to get that ball rolling,” Hull noted. “I walked into the office in New York with him yesterday and he was very honest with me and looked me in the eye and said, ‘I need help and I’m going to get it,’ and I said, ‘That’s good, that’s the best start we could have right there.’”
Once the suspension is over, it’s unclear what will be next.
“Once the suspension is over and once we find out where the process he’s trying to go through is taking him, we’re going to have to sit down with Tom Hicks and the rest of our group and figure out what decisions we’re going to make going forward,” Hull said. “Obviously, in anything, whether it’s business and sports, chemistry is important and we have to find out if the possibility of that chemistry exists, and if it doesn’t, we’ll have to go forward. It’s a decision that no matter what it is, it’s going to be what’s best for the Dallas Stars and the players and ownership group.”
Hull even acknowledged that Avery’s ability to be welcomed back in the dressing room would play a factor in the decision.
“I think the team has a lot of input,” Hull said. “When you look at the people in that room like Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow
, Marty Turco, I think that these are guys that are a huge part of our team and we want them to be comfortable and happy and we want that room to be the best it can be to get wins. So they will definitely have their say. Whether we listen or not, that’s another question.”
When asked what it would take for Avery to be welcomed back in the room, Turco replied, “I don’t know. I could personally forgive somebody for making a mistake or a few mistakes, but I think all of it goes a lot deeper than that.”
“I think you have to determine whether he’s coming back to begin with,” Modano added. “It’s been stated that it’s going to be difficult if that happens, from Dave’s and (co-GM) Les Jackson’s comments and Tom’s obviously. As players, I think we’ve kind of washed our hands of the situation. After today, we’re not going to discuss it or talk about it or him. We have to focus on hockey and our jobs and that’s all we can do.”
As for the notion that Avery committed insubordination by disregarding Tippett’s request Tuesday not to speak to the media, Hull indicated that was part of what will be addressed in the counseling.
“The help he’s going to seek is all about that, the inability to toe the line and respect authority, how to deal with the media,” he said. “It’s almost a little paranoia that the media is after him. He needs to be taken care of as a person.”
As for Avery’s play on the ice, Hull insisted that he was happy with it and that the Stars’ sub-par showing this season, which has them still sitting last in the Western Conference standings with a 9-12-4 record, cannot be blamed on Avery.
“I think he’s played very hard on the ice, he’s played through injuries,” Hull said. “He’s never missed a practice due to an injury and he has been hurt this year. And anybody who tries to use him as an excuse for their poor play, I’m not sure I’d want them on my team because you put your own skates on and you pull your own jersey over your head. I could never look at another guy when I played and say, ‘He’s making me play bad.’ So anybody who says that, I’d like to know who they are.”
In 23 games, Avery has accumulated three goals and 10 points, while registering a + 2 plus/minus rating, which sits third on the club, and a team-leading 77 penalty minutes that ranks him second in the entire NHL.
“I have no problem with what he’s done on the ice, it’s the other things we have to take care of,” Hull noted. “His on-ice play is fine, he plays very hard. It’s like Gary Bettman said in the hearing yesterday. In between the boards and on the ice, we understand, things are said, things are done - it’s the other things. It’s the fans, it’s the refs, it’s the media, it’s all those things and until he can learn to control his emotions outside of the game, I don’t think it’ll ever work, so he needs to fix that part of his life.”
The Stars now will try to put all the hubbub behind them and get their focus back on the ice, starting with a match against Colorado Friday night at American Airlines Center (7:30 pm start).
“We have really no choice to do the best we can to put everything behind us for tonight’s game, to give our best effort and focus to try to keep collecting points,” Turco said. “That’s the most important issue right now and the other side business really has no concern for us and what we need to do. I’d prefer it not to be around me at all.”