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Men'sWeek issue 02/16/2012

Sean Avery, once and perhaps future National Hockey League agitator without equal, was in the big airy loft he rents in a SoHo walk-up one recent morning just back from spin class and considering its clientele.

“I would really like to come back as a TriBeCa housewife,” Avery says, halfway into a neatly tailored chalk-striped gray wool suit.

This story first appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“It’s just amazing, you know?” he goes on. “8:30 in the morning you just drop the kids off at school. You probably didn’t even have to get them ready for school because I’m sure somebody’s doing that. And then you go bang out a workout. And then you probably hit one of those places down there for breakfast maybe. And then I don’t know what happens the rest of the day. I guess you kind of just cruise…hit a board meeting for one of the charities that you’re on. And then you go shopping.”

Avery is pacing the apartment getting ready for his day at double speed: pulling the dry cleaner’s paper out of a white dress shirt, choosing a light gray knit tie to pair with it, calling his car service to check on a pickup.

“I mean no,” he says reconsidering. “It would last two weeks and then I’d go crazy. I’d definitely go crazy.”

It’s late January and the New York Rangers, the team with which Avery has spent the better part of his last five years, are three points atop the NHL’s Atlantic Division. The club is off to its best start in years. But Avery is standing at the island in his kitchen considering the plight of Manhattan’s leisure class.

The Rangers put the 31-year-old left winger on waivers in October following a training camp in which, depending on who you ask, he was either unproductive or not given the chance to produce. He went unclaimed and reported to The Whale, the team’s minor league affiliate in Hartford. Though he was called back up for a stretch in November and December, by the new year the team had reassigned him back to Hartford almost certainly for good.

“I don’t want to jam up Sean here — I think we have better players than Sean Avery, plain and simple,” coach John Tortorella, who had been a detractor of Avery’s as a television analyst before taking the Rangers job (and taking on Avery) in 2009, told beat reporters after the October cut. (The team declined to comment for this article.)

Standing in his apartment, wearing only tattoos from the waist up, Avery is a touch intimidating, at least physically. His broad shoulders and cut trunk give him the look of a turn-of-the century bare knuckler. He has freckles and intense, light eyes. A scar above his left lip can give his smile a “try me; I dare you” effect, even when he’s not goading anyone in particular.

Still, it’s currently proving difficult to reconcile the Sean Avery standing at the kitchen island — with the flowers he arranged himself and latest issues of Elle Décor and Architectural Digest spread out on it — with the Sean Avery of reputation. This is not the Avery the Dallas Stars dropped in 2008, a few months into a four-year, $15.5 million contract because he referred to his ex-girlfriend, the actress Elisha Cuthbert, as “sloppy seconds” in a locker room interview. Or the one who, just four days ago, had scored a goal in the second period against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and immediately started a brawl that earned him 14 penalty minutes. (He hasn’t skated in a game for the Whale since.) Or the Avery who was arrested in Los Angeles last summer for allegedly shoving a cop investigating a noise complaint at his home there, which he was in town to sell. The charges were eventually dropped.

This Sean Avery is jocular and self-aware and texts at 7:45 to advise that the day may require shorts and flip-flops. He adds an “LOL” for good measure.

“I think Sean’s really working on that,” says Tom Sachs the artist, who is one of Avery’s oldest New York friends. “That’s a life project: controlling your anger and learning to channel it in a creative way is something that will be a life project for Sean. You can’t remove that from what makes him a great spontaneous, psychological player. There’s a fine line between being purely intellectual and totally impulsive. Yeah, I’ve seen Sean freak out, and I think it’s maybe his strength and his weakness, but they’re integrated.”

It’s also proving difficult to reconcile the kinder, gentler Sean Avery with the one who has a world-class reputation for mind manipulation. By professional hockey standards, Avery’s build is average. The Whale’s roster lists him at 5-feet, 10-inches tall and 195 pounds. He’s made his career as an enforcer not by brute strength, but by tweaking his opponents at near psy-ops levels. His greatest hits list is long, but is perhaps best illustrated by a 2008 playoff game incident in which he ignored the puck to face guard Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. Though not technically illegal at the time, the screening move flouted any notion of sportsmanship. It immediately prompted a rereading of NHL rule book and resulted in what is now called “The Sean Avery Rule.”

Avery is the back of a Town Car on his way to the Meatpacking District offices of Lipman, the advertising and creative services agency discussing his career path. “I didn’t think there was anything else I was going to do; I wasn’t thinking about anything else,” Avery says in his still-there Canadian accent. He grew up outside Toronto, was signed by the Detroit Red Wings at 19 and broke into the pros at 21.

“If I had said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go to school, I could have went to Harvard,” he goes on. “I could have went to Yale. I could have went to Brown. I could have…anywhere. If you get a hockey scholarship, you can go anywhere. You just gotta get by on those SATs….I always have this image in my head of walking around one of those campuses to class and then going to practice. Just being superpreppy, that all-American picture.”

In major American sports, you’d be hard pressed to find an athlete with as deep an interest in fashion as Avery. In the summer of 2008 he spent a few weeks interning at Vogue. (There is a portrait of Anna Wintour on the wall of his apartment. “For Sean,” the signed inscription reads, “our most famous intern.”) He worked as a “design collaborator” with the men’s wear line Commonwealth Utilities. He had been renting the house in Los Angeles to Milk Studios founder Mazdack Rassi. Throughout his career, Avery has shown an almost innate need for extracurricular stimulation. Tiny’s, a restaurant and bar he co-owns, is about 10 blocks south of his apartment, and Warren 77, the first bar he opened, is a few blocks past that. Last summer, in a significant move for a pro athlete, he filmed an Internet ad in support of the campaign to legalize gay marriage in New York.

Now, Avery is facing life without hockey, and the prospect that the outside interests are all that he may have.

Lipman is behind the latest advertising campaign for Hickey Freeman, the American men’s wear heritage brand, which Avery appears in. Its fourth-floor office space is sunlit and open, and is filled with young creative types in comfortable looking, but definitely expensive, clothes. Avery, in his double-breasted suit, is the closest thing the place comes to “Mad Men.” He has been spending a solid portion of his free time there lately. The ceilings are high and rows of photography books line one half-block long wall. It’s like a Hollywood back lot version of a 21st century ad agency. In fact, on the day Avery is there to preview the Hickey campaign, Rachel McAdams is there shadowing the company’s chairman, David Lipman, as research for an upcoming Brian DePalma movie.

Lipman greets him and, after some small talk, has the images on the television screen in front of three low couches.

“Everybody wanted to bail, and I just stood in and said: ‘This is what he’s about,’” says Lipman. The topic has returned to Avery’s Los Angeles arrest, which happened while the Hickey deal was still in the works.

“He stood up for what he believed at that moment, whether it be authority, or anything,” Lipman, who like any good ad man has a habit of speaking in epiphanies, continues. “Police can’t come into his house like that. And he just stood up for it and that’s the man we want. I stood firm by it. I stood firm by Kate Moss when she was in trouble….At that point I didn’t know Sean well enough to have personal feelings because we just met. I knew my client better than I knew Sean, but I knew it was the right thing for them.”

Avery inked a deal after the dust settled.

As Lipman speaks, he is showing off his handpicked selection of the black-and-white images in the campaign. Photographer Francesco Corazzini moved in with Avery for several days in late November and early December to achieve a sort of Hickey Freeman-informed vérité. There are shots of Avery standing on his kitchen counter in his underwear adjusting picture frames, and greeting fans after a game at Madison Square Garden (the shoot occurred during his midseason call up), and of him snarling at the camera in sunglasses from the back of a cab. Whatever one’s thoughts on Avery, it’s tough to argue that he doesn’t wear a suit jacket very well. As the digital slides continue to roll, Lipman makes reference to the Avery in the ads a few times as a “prince of the city.” Given Avery’s professional station, it’s an interesting phrase.

“Listen, are there days when I wake up and I am sad?” Avery asks aloud as he stops fidgeting on the couch. “Yeah, of course. Do I pretend I’m not sad? Yeah. Will it beat me or will it win? No, of course not. ‘Cause, you know what? I get to wake up, put a great suit on and I do what I have to do from a business standpoint. I’m in my restaurants, [I’m] coming in here….You’re not going to be able to play in a city forever. I mean, you’re lucky if you’re able to play in a city for five years.…Whether it happened the way it happened now, or it happened because I stopped playing or I got traded. It’s going to be OK. But it sucks.”

Avery is adamant that he can and will play again, this season even (those with a deep understanding of the NHL’s payroll bylaws seem less certain). At the moment, though, Hickey Freeman is launching a national ad campaign, a buy that’s included video ads on the New York Times’ homepage, with a minor league hockey player, who isn’t even playing in the minors.

“In getting to know him, he’s a very cerebral guy,” Hickey Freeman creative director Joseph Abboud says over the phone the next day. “I guess part of the beauty is, he’s a paradox. In one room he could beat you up and in another room he could read you poetry….He’s gonna have to control his own destiny and do what he needs to do after hockey whatever that is. But we didn’t just stand by him because we thought we were being good guys.”

Later that night, Avery is due to meet for a drink at Corazzini’s West Village town house. There’s some confusion on the time, and while he’s on his way, the 29-year-old photographer, son of Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, is having a glass of wine and chatting about his subject. The pair hadn’t met before the shoot, but have developed an impressive rapport in the few months since.

“As a person, I saw that Sean is very focused,” Corazzini says. “He is in control.…Some people are just not curious. That’s the truth. People, they just don’t care: ‘If I bump into this thing, cool.’ He goes hunting for it. “9 1/2 Weeks,” we saw before the shoot because David recommended it. And we all knew the film, but he watched it on repeat for nine days prior and then another 20 times while we were shooting.”

After some time, Avery arrives at the front door with his own red Solo cup in hand. He declines a drink, citing his own iced tea. He’s changed into a black crew neck sweater, a pair of midnight blue suit pants and simple black sneakers with gum soles. He goes almost immediately to the back door and cracks it open without asking. After discussing the shoot some more, the conversation turns to whether or not Avery holds any ill will for the Rangers.

“How could I be upset?” he says. “I had an amazing time here. I have so many friends that I’ve made out of this. I’ve basically forged a career out of living here.”

Avery is shortly out of his seat, through the house’s front door and on his way down the sidewalk. He’s half a block away when it occurs that Sean Avery, agent provocateur, might have just pulled a punch.