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LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:53 AM ET

For years, the only pre-game warmup worth watching was in Slap Shot where one Hanson brother exchanged menacing glances with an opponent before clocking the guy with a haymaker.

That is until Sean Avery started getting into the kitchen of teams such as the Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils last month. In a well-documented Nov. 10 dust-up with Toronto's Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake, the New York Ranger triggered a pre-game shoving match that led to a fight later in the game, a penalty box shouting match and ultimately almost $40,000 US in fines to both teams.

Avery missed the rematch earlier this month in New York with a wrist injury from the Tucker fight, but has increased the focus on tonight's visit by the Rangers, already sure to have the Hockey Night in Canada cameras locked on him when he emerges for the 6:30 skate. The Pickering native tried to stir up more ill will on Thursday when he told the New York media he dislikes playing at home because of "hockey-obsessed Canadians", then took pot shots at the strong Canadian dollar and the cost of expensive ACC tickets "for people I don't even like."

But Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft yesterday warned teammates, media and fans alike not to fall into a trap.

"You (media) guys are eating out of his hand right now," chided Raycroft, who will make his third consecutive start in place of the injured Vesa Toskala. "(Avery) will come up to Toronto this afternoon and watch himself on Sportscentre at 11 o'clock and he'll be happy about that. He's a lot more popular than 90% of us and good for him. That's what he wants. He's playing everyone's fiddle."

Raycroft said goaltenders are hardly sacred cows for Avery, whom most NHLers consider the best agitator in the business.

"I played with him in junior," Raycroft said of their Kingston days. "I have just as much dirt on him as he has on me. We did some stupid 19-year-olds' stuff together."

BUGS PLAYERS

While he knows it bugs his players, Leafs coach Paul Maurice concedes he likes that part of Avery's schtick.

"He hates Canadians? Where's he from?," Maurice said with a laugh. "I think it's great because it takes 15 minutes (of pressure) off the Leafs and on to the broadcast."

Maurice said he didn't consider November's fight and the gutter talk a big enough affront to his team to call Wade Belak out of the press box as a precaution.

"Those two (the fourth-liner Belak and the 16-minute-a- game Avery) don't travel in the same circles," Maurice said.

Belak said last month that Avery might get killed if he kept crossing the line with his comments. But Belak lamented that Avery doesn't put his skills to better use.

"It's not as though he's a bad player," Belak said. "If he'd just shut up and cut out the b.s., he'd be on the ice a lot more, getting a lot of points and helping his team that way. He's a better player than an agitator."

Avery did not speak yesterday, but as far as his principal foils go, neither Tucker nor Blake warmed to the subject.

"I haven't listened to any of it," Tucker said. "Our focus is on winning the game."

Blake shrugged and said: "It is what it is. We can't concern ourselves with him. Obviously, he'll do what he has to do to get ready for the game."


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