Barnum and Smothers


Many years ago, my mother and I were together when a young person with multi-colored spiked hair and a variety of facial piercings and tattoos walked past us. My mother frowned.

“That is someone who was never hugged a child,” she said.

I know nothing of Sean Avery’s upbringing. I don’t know him personally and I don’t want to.

Even so, whenever I see or hear about his antics — which are all about seeking attention, even if its negative attention — I can’t help but wonder what happened to him in his life to make him the way he is.

Avery has no respect for anything or anyone. He treated the game of hockey with contempt embarrassing himself and wearing out his welcome wherever he went. A host of former teammates, opponents, coaches, GMs and officials alike would rather change the subject whenever his name is mentioned. ”

I didn’t have to deal with Avery too often on the ice — my final season as an NHL referee was his second season in the NHL — but I got just enough to see what he was all about (and it wasn’t about helping his team or being a good teammate). When he was a rookie with the Detroit Red Wings, I once pinned him up against the glass with my forearm and told him I wouldn’t put up with his garbage.

Avery could play the game just enough to keep finding new employers but each team he played for soon realized there were diminishing returns in keeping him around. Frankly, he disgraced the uniform and did a disservice to the game’s actual tough guys. I used to get an urge to vomit when I’d hear his name and toughness mentioned in the same sentence.

My idea of tough guys: Terry O’Reilly was a genuine tough guy who overachieved as much as anyone ever has in this sport. From a later generation, Ian Laperriere brought toughness, dedication and honor to the uniform for many years.

Sean Avery was — and remains — a clown and a phony: all bark and trash talk with no genuine ability to back up his boasts and taunts. Everyone in the game saw through him sooner or later, because he wasn’t nearly as good of an actor as he fancied himself.

His primary skill is the ability to create publicity and hype his own brand of sideshows; basically a hockey version of P.T. Barnum or Bill Veeck. Why did the producers of that Broadway show choose him? Same reason. They brought in Sideshow Sean to create some easy publicity for their show, first in announcing he’d been hired for the cast and then in his convenient temper tantrum and decision to quit the show.

Supposedly, a stage hand offered him a slice of pizza pie and Avery flipped out because he thought he’d been called an a-hole or someone told him shut his pie-hole or he was handed a slice of double anchovies or whatever contrived story it was. If the story is legitimate, well, perhaps we should thank Papa John for Avery not going through with his idea of proving he’s just as bad an actor on the stage as he was as a misanthropic thespian on the ice.

To me, there was always a difference between Avery and even someone like Matthew Barnaby. While Barnaby could be a real puke on the ice, he at least had a sense of humor about him. He was someone who could do something stupid or outrageous and then fess up to it afterwards. You could laugh about old stories with Matthew, tease him a bit, and he’d take it in good spirits. Avery could only dish it out. He couldn’t take it, whereas Barnaby understood when he’d brought something on himself.

For years and years, Barnaby had a running feud on the ice with Lyle Odelein; another player who sometimes got lumped into the same category. In actuality, Lyle had some genuine toughness to him and it was probably a good thing for Barnaby that he was too slippery for Odelein to truly catch and thrash.

Over the years, Lyle and I had some go-rounds on the ice but we also developed a rapport and friendship. We had a sort of Smothers Brothers routine going, where he’d channel Tom’s famous “Mom always liked you best!” routine.

Early in my career, I refereed some Western Hockey League games involving Lyle’s brother, Selmar Odelein, who briefly played in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Both Odelein brothers were good guys off the ice, but I pretended that I only like Selmar.

It grew into a running joke — almost a ritual — between Lyle and me. After greeting some of his teammates and opponents, the first thing I’d say to Lyle was “How’s your brother doing?”

Lyle might reply with something like, “What about me? I scored my first goal of the season the other night.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I’d respond. “So how’s Selmar doing?”

Another time, I told him the NHL was only big enough for one Odelein and they’d picked the wrong one. He’d chirp right back at me with a good-natured barb of his own.

Once the opening faceoff dropped, it’d be all business again. I got into it pretty good with Odelein, Barnaby, Theo Fleury and others of similar style. At the end of the day, all the friction and conflict would be put aside even if I didn’t like certain things they’d done or said and vice versa. They were hockey guys and so was I, so there was a mutual understanding that never had to be vocalized.

With that other guy, hockey was a means to an attention-seeking end. I Just as there was a wounded, insecure person that even my mother could see right through the unknown passerby’s self-distorted physical appearance, there has to be an underlying reason or pain that shaped Sean Avery. He so desperately craves attention that he would rather be regarded in similar fashion to a toothache or jock itch when the only alternative is to be ignored. It’s actually rather sad.

********* Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.This post originally appeared on and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.