By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
Sean Avery and the New York Rangers are like an old married couple: They fight, they jostle, they separate, but in the end they always seem to come back to each other.
That’s why when New York recalled the agitating winger from American Hockey League affiliate Connecticut a week ago, the news came with little surprise.
“I’ve loved every game I’ve ever played for this team,” Avery told reporters after his first practice with New York, where he’s played parts of five prior seasons.
The feeling of affection is a mutual one for the Rangers, even though the sides have already parted ways on two different occasions. The first divorce occurred in the summer of 2008, when the Dallas Stars enticed Avery with a four-year, $15.5 million free agent contract.
26 games into the 2008-2009 season, Avery wore out its welcome in the Lone Star state, eventually ending up suspended and banished to the AHL. Later that season Avery caught on in New York again when he was claimed by the Rangers off of re-entry waivers. He went on to skate in six playoff games that spring, helping New York nearly upset the heavily favored Washington Capitals.
Flash forward to this fall, when the 30-year-old Avery did not make New York’s opening day roster out of training camp. A nagging injury to forward Mike Rupp – later revealed to be a torn meniscus, which required surgery – required Rangers general manager Glen Sather and coach John Tortorella to recall Avery and re-assess their thinking.
“(Rupp) has a lot to do with this (because) there’s concern (about how much) he’ll be able to play,” Tortorella told reporters on the Monday before Avery’s recall. “This is the right decision, just like it was the right hockey decision when we sent Sean down.”
But saying Rupp’s injury necessitated the move is only part of the story. Truth is, the Madison Square Garden faithful missed Avery, while New York missed the winger’s aggressive forechecking and celebrated antics, including his infamous stick-screening of goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Avery just works with the Rangers, unlike the diva’s failed stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. For either side to continue living apart simply did not make sense.
NHL Homecomings, A Brief History
Avery and Rangers are not the only NHL couple that seems fitted only for each other.
In Detroit a pair of blue-collar tough guys, Darren McCarty and Joey Kocur, were as beloved by fans at Joe Louis Arena as the NHL legends like Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, who have worn a Red Wings sweater.
For 11 seasons (1993-2004), McCarty was one of the most adored players to ever play in Detroit. One of the rare skaters to combine a propensity for fighting with a crafty scoring touch, McCarty was at his best competing on the tenacious “grind line” with fellow checkers Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby.
During that time period McCarty was a member of three championship teams, but his highlight moment came during the 1997 playoffs, when he scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal.
After the yearlong lockout, McCarty signed on to play for the Calgary Flames, but things were not the same for the rugged winger. Without an NHL job for the 2007-08 season, McCarty was given one last shot to catch on with Detroit through a tryout with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, that February.
McCarty would go on to suit up in 17 playoff games for Detroit during the 2008 postseason, helping the franchise capture its 11th and most recent Stanley Cup. After part of another season with the Red Wings, McCarty officially called his career quits on December 7, 2009, with few regrets.
“I’m very proud to have played for as long as I did … (and) to have been a part of all those strong teams, especially the four Stanley Cup-winning teams in Detroit,” McCarty told reporters upon his retirement. “I’d like to thank my family, teammates, coaches, the Red Wings and Flames organizations, and the fans for helping me realize my dreams.”
Kocur was another tough guy who found success in two different stints with Detroit.
Originally drafted by the Red Wings in 1983, Kocur joined Detroit on a full-time basis two years later. For the next six seasons he and fellow “bruise brother” wingman Bob Probert terrorized opponents, while stars like Yzerman contributed to Detroit’s offense.
But after stints with the Rangers (with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 1994) and Vancouver Canucks, Kocur was essentially out of hockey during the fall of 1996. Returning to the Motor City at the suggestion of Yzerman, Kocur went on to become an important contributor on the Red Wings’ back-to-back championship teams of 1997 and 1998.
Not every homecoming is met with success. Just ask Alexei Kovalev, who had failed returns with not one but two different franchises.
Upon entering the NHL for the 1992-93 season, Kovalev was seen as a budding star with the Rangers during his first six-plus seasons, including the 1994 Cup run. Traded to Pittsburgh midseason in 1998-1999, Kovalev would reach even greater heights individually, racking up career highs in goals (44) and in points (95) in 2000-01.
Kovalev was traded back to Broadway in 2002-03. In his only full year back with the Blueshirts (2003-04), Kovalev disappointed, managing just 13 goals and 42 points in 66 games, while the Rangers missed out on the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
After stints with the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, Kovalev returned to Pittsburgh at the 2011 trade deadline in an attempt to bolster a Penguins offense devoid of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The 38-year-old proved to be nothing more than a high-priced disaster, scoring just three goals in his 27-game retread.
Avery, McCarty, Kocur and Kovalev probably won’t be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but it’s worth mentioning that Mark Messier had a similar experience upon returning to the Rangers for the 2000-01 season.
Instead of being the Messier of old, Messier just plain looked old while finishing with a minus-25 rating despite scoring 67 points in his first year back. The Rangers never made the playoffs in any of Messier’s final four NHL seasons.
“Having lived in New York for 10-plus years, it becomes a part of you,” said Messier, who remains the Rangers’ special assistant to the president and general manager. “I love the city, the team and what we were able to do.”
Kicked out of Homecoming
It’s common for a player of statue to sign a one-day contract in order to stage a retirement ceremony at their favorite stop. But in recent years a couple of former NHL stars, Peter Forsberg and Theoren Fleury, each went one step further, actually coming out of retirement for one last-ditch effort to return with the teams that they were most associated with.
After an injury-plagued 13 years in the NHL (1995-2008), Forsberg came back to Colorado for two more games last season. However, Forsberg played to a minus-4 rating and failed to register a point before finally hanging up his skates for good.
“I’m really happy that I got the chance with the Avalanche to come back here and try for the last time and put an end to it,” Forsberg told reporters upon his retirement. “Maybe I was selfish to come over, but (now) I feel like I’m ready to retire.”
Meanwhile, after six seasons away from the NHL, Fleury tried to make the Calgary Flames out of training camp in the fall of 2009.
After contributing four points in four preseason games, Fleury’s homecoming was aborted when the fiery forward was released, ending a career spanning 1,804 NHL games (455 goals and 1,088 points).
It Was Like They Never Left
Not all homecomings end in failure. Two active players, Ed Jovanovski and Teemu Selanne, are prime examples that you can go home again.
Few NHL retreads have made a more positive impact on their teams than Jovanovski has with the Florida Panthers this season.
First, a brief history: Originally Florida’s first overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Jovanovski soon developed into the Panthers’ franchise player. During his first three-plus seasons in Sunrise, the hulking defenseman carried the franchise to its only appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
Midway through the 1998-99 season, Jovanovski was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in a multi-player deal including Pavel Bure. The swap began the decline of the franchise, as the Panthers would only make the playoffs only one more time (in 1999-2000) beyond the blue liner’s tenure.
Jovanovski enjoyed life in British Columbia for six full seasons after the trade, helping the Canucks become an elite Western Conference club. He then spent five injury-plagued seasons in Phoenix before returning to Florida this past off-season.
Now 35, Jovanovski is cast into a different role with the Panthers than he was 12 years ago – playing quality minutes and being a vocal leader, but not being leaned on as a star.
So far Jovanovski’s return could not have worked out much better. In 14 games this season he has two goals and four points, while averaging more than 16 and half minutes of ice time. More importantly, the Panthers are 8-4-3 and challenging for first place in the Southeast Division.
“The team is heading in the right direction,” Jovanovski told David Neal of the Miami Herald upon signing with Florida during the off-season. “And the organization felt like (bringing me back) was part of bringing the team back up to a playoff (caliber level).”
Perhaps the greatest homecoming for a current NHL player is Teemu Selanne’s final go-around with the Anaheim Ducks.
After a stunning start to his career with the Winnipeg Jets, the Finnish Flash was traded in the middle of the 1995-96 season to the then-Mighty Ducks. Joining forces with Paul Kariya, Selanne promoted the rise of the expansion franchise until he was traded to San Jose in 2001.
After stints with the Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, Selanne returned to Southern California after the NHL lockout. Selanne proved a perfect addition for the maturing Ducks, helping the franchise win its first Cup in 2006-07 after a 48-goal, 94-point regular season.
Fighting off the inklings of retirement in recent years, Selanne remains stunningly productive at age 41. After an 80-point campaign a season ago, Selanne has five goals and 14 points in the Ducks’ first 15 games, leading all Anaheim scorers.
“As he showed again last season, Teemu still has the drive, determination and skill to play at an elite level,” Ducks general manager Bob Murray told reporters in September when Anaheim resigned Selanne. “Most importantly for us his passion comes from not just playing, but playing for the Ducks.”
What Does It Mean For Avery?
Only time will tell if Avery’s passion for New York will prove beneficial for the Rangers this season, but if his first three games are any indication, one can only wonder why Avery was ever sent down in the first place. So far New York is 3-0-0 in the contests Avery has suited up for.
Needless to say, Ranger fans are glad to have Avery back, even if the rest of the league lacks interest in the controversial forward.