The muzzle man

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Sean Avery isn't stupid.

Insensitive? Yes. Rude? Sure. Crass? Antagonistic? Belligerent? Self-Centred? Thoughtless? He was all of the above on more occasions than the L.A. Kings care to remember last season.

But he's not stupid.

As much as he loves the spotlight, loves to be controversial and outspoken off the ice and confrontational on it, he discovered in a hurry that his trash-talking, bad-boy antics were going to be the end of him, or his career. Or both.

Too many enemies

He made enemies of Europeans and French Canadians last year, and allegedly (though he denies it) called Georges Laraque a monkey, leading to a tense, post-game standoff between players from both teams in the Staples Centre underground parking lot.

He had run-ins with referees, teammates and coaches, launched an obscenity-laced tirade at TV commentator Brian Hayward and was suspended by the Kings with three games left in the season for refusing to take part in a drill.

"Whether it was missing an assignment or doing something that's going to get him in the headlines, he's always had these momentary lapses of focus," said L.A. coach Marc Crawford. "That's something he's always going to deal with."

He's a hard-nosed player with decent hands who could be a valuable asset on any club, but he knew he'd run out of takers in a hurry if he didn't shed some of his negative baggage.

So he asked the Kings for another chance, and vowed to change his ways. It hasn't even been a whole year yet, and it probably wouldn't take much of a spark to ignite his powder keg, but 53 games into the season he's been true to his word.

"I had to put a muzzle on things," said Avery. "It got to the point where I decided to just keep quiet. I still have all the same thoughts going on in my head, I'm still as opinionated as ever, I just don't feel it's necessary to share it with Canada or the U.S."

And for that, most of Canada and the U.S. are eternally grateful. And so are the Kings, who've noticed a change in Avery's on-ice persona, as well. There's less arguing with the referees, fewer bad penalties and, so far, no meltdowns.

"I think he's done a real admirable job of it," said Crawford, who believes Avery, when he's focused, is a solid top-six forward.

"Sean is a pretty good player. He's one of the guys that teams know are on the ice.

"We use him in power-play situations, he makes good plays, he's strong, he's tough. He's a very, very serviceable player and he's only going to keep helping himself the more he keeps those focus issues in check."

Despite all of Avery's blow-ups last year, he still had a breakout season, scoring a career-high 39 points while leading the NHL with 257 penalty minutes. He's on pace for something in the same neighbourhood this year.

"I don't think I'm having the greatest year this year, not as good as I had last year, but I think the change (in attitude) worked out pretty good," said Avery, who sought guidance from former Detroit teammate Steve Yzerman, among others, while trying to reform his personality.

'SMART ENOUGH'

"It just got to the point where I was getting tired of all the controversy because I was saying things that all the boring people in the hockey world didn't want to hear."

OK, maybe the tongue-biting is somewhat reluctant, but the sound of Avery's silence is golden in L.A.

"He's smart enough to realize that he already has his reputation, he doesn't need to do anything more," said Crawford.

"He needs to keep being aware of what's going to help us and what's going to help him.

"And he will. He's a smart guy, he realizes what side his bread is buttered on."


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