Best for Leafs to ignore shift-disturbing Avery

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

TORONTO - The Maple Leafs are in first place, and their fans are overjoyed.

And possibly overstimulated (but that's another story).

But are the Leafs getting soft?

Just last week, Sean Avery, the NHL's Public Enema No. 1, viciously hacked Toronto defenceman Mike Komisarek AND prompted New York Islanders defenceman James Wisniewski to make an obscene gesture on the ice, resulting in a two-game suspension for Wisniewski.

And everybody remembers the stunt Avery pulled on Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf some years ago, when Phaneuf was in Calgary.

Yet, following practice on Wednesday, not a single soul inside the Leafs dressing room had anything remotely nasty to say about Avery, whose New York Rangers visit the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.

If anything, they fell over themselves in praise of hockey's version of a bed bug infestation.

It was like a bloody Norman Vincent Peale convention.

"He can win games by himself if the other team gets frustrated with him," said Fredrik Sjostrom. "And some of the stuff he does is pretty funny."

"He's good at what he does," added Clarke MacArthur. "And he plays hard."

"He brings energy to his team," said Kris Versteeg. "When he's on his game, and he's doing his thing, he can affect a lot of guys."

Hell, the nastiest thing said about Avery came from Mike Zigomanis, who was Avery's teammate with the Kingston Frontenacs.

"He was on my team, but he wasn't my teammate," said the Leafs' fourth line centre.

Shocking stuff.

When pressed to elaborate, Zigomanis paused for a few seconds-which was noted and commented upon by Sjostrom -and replied: "I wouldn't invite him over for tea and biscuits, if that's what you mean."

Neither Komisarek nor Phaneuf threw down the gauntlet either.

So what's going on?

Have the Leafs adopted a 'nice guys finish first' attitude?

Apparently not. It turns out the last thing the Leafs want to do is start a pissing match with a guy who, as Sjostrom pointed out, can be a game changer if he gets under the opposition's skin.

It's a 'let sleeping dogs lie' sort of thing.

And besides, said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, Avery's yapping is nothing to get tied up in a knot over. Certainly not something to prepare for. And certainly not something new.

"(The difference is) now you have to be politically correct," said Wilson, when asked about Avery and the role trash talking has in the NHL.

"The things you used to say, you can't say anymore. Simple as that. Like calling you," he added, gesturing towards a certain balding, though rather charming,

Toronto sports writer, "Wel l , I can't use the words I'd like to call you, because I'd have some sort of social group come down hard (on me). It wouldn't be from you. You're used to being called names and stuff, I suspect."

The Leafs figure that if they speak their true feelings about Avery, he and the Rangers could use it as a means of motivation. And that, of course, is a no-no in pro sports.

But you have to know that, despite words to the contrary, the Leafs have a huge hate on for Avery. Perhaps the same can be said for some of his New York teammates.

Everyone talks about Avery's value to his team when he's on his game.

But the opposite is true as well.

NHL players get up for every game, at least they try to, but there are certain games they get up for more than others -like English Canadian players when they play in Toronto, or French-Canadian players when they visit the Bell Centre in Montreal.

It's like that with the New York Rangers. Players get fired up to play the Rangers, because of Avery.

And though he certainly has his merits as a player, and as an agitator, in the long run, his presence probably hurts the Rangers more than it helps.

Of course, one player a team does not make. But Avery has played for the Rangers since the 2006-07 season, with a brief stay in Dallas and with the Hartford Wolf Pack, and not once during that time have the Rangers made it past in the Eastern conference semi-finals. Last season the Rangers failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Avery's 30 now, and is probably losing a step or two.

You have to wonder how long the Rangers will put up with his act.

They certainly aren't going very far with him.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca


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