From Ontario, to the NHL, to the Hollywood Hills, Sean Avery is continuously learning and trying new things. We caught up with the ex-pro hockey player to discuss his favourite career highlights, his new acting career, and, what he thinks is the single biggest difference between the person he was before the NHL and who he is today.
What are some of your best memories growing up in Ontario? What do you miss about Canada when you’re in New York? Are there parts of you that will always be innately Canadian?
Growing up my dad played major junior in Oshawa for the Generals, but I actually grew up in Kitchener and that’s what I identify my childhood as. I was there until twelve or thirteen. Growing up I remember Oktoberfest to be a Canadian thing that I can vividly remember. That was always our first hockey tournament of the year, the Oktoberfest tournament. I can always remember being excited about the 1st week of school because that was when hockey tryouts would start. I went to a lot of Kitchener Ranger games when I was growing up. That was as good as going to an NHL game for me… I didn’t see an NHL game live until I was 12 in 1992, when my dad took me to Maple Leaf Gardens to see Toronto vs. St. Louis Blues.
Growing up in Canada it was hockey, hockey, hockey.
The thing that I miss about Canada is the food. The quality of the food… even with things like candy bars… the stuff that we eat in the U.S is not good. I was never a big processed food snob or anything, but you can definitely tell the difference when you get older.
You were an undrafted free agent who went on to have a successful 14-year NHL career against the odds. What was it like for you to not be drafted? Did you feel like your NHL dream was over, did you use it as extra motivation?
Not really. Someone has asked me that before and they tried to say “there’s no way that you felt the way that you felt”. But I think at that point I sort of expected it. The World Juniors is a big thing for any Canadian junior player, that’s what you strive for. The year of my draft I was having a really good year and I didn’t get a World Junior invite. That was sort of when my mindset changed to “Nothing’s going to come easy to me. I probably won’t get drafted. I’m probably going to have to do it the unconventional way”. It’s funny, there was really never an ounce of me that thought that I wasn’t going to play in the NHL.
When you don’t get drafted you can still go to training camp and you can go wherever you want. I ended up going to Detroit’s camp that next year. Now, this was the first camp for any of the guys that were my age, the guys that had been drafted the previous year. I went to training camp and I ended up getting a contract, which is very unique. The guys that were drafted the previous year weren’t going to end up signing their contracts for a few years. So I came back to junior and I signed an NHL contract. I really couldn’t tell you anyone that that has happened to, and it was because I had a really good camp and I guess Detroit said “we don’t want him to be able to go and play somewhere else” so they signed me to a contract. I remember I had a junior salary of like, $4500, which at that point in 1998 or 1999 junior was a huge amount of money.
From the time the draft happened in June, four months later I had an NHL contract, so there wasn’t that much time to dwell on it.
If you could go back in time to speak to the person you were right before you entered the NHL, with the benefit of knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give your younger self to better prepare for the journey that was to come?
Priorities are the big thing. You know, I was really motivated once I signed an NHL contract. I think I was definitely motivated before, but I think I took chances and did things that I probably shouldn’t have. I was a little bit wild when I was younger. So, I think priorities, that’s the big thing. And I don’t think there’s an age limit on priorities… I don’t think you have to start prioritizing things once you hit a certain age or you should stop doing it once you get to a certain age.
If you want to be a pro, those priorities are: One. Outworking all of your peers. Two. Staying as disciplined as you possibly can. And three. Pushing yourself. Like really trying to maximize what you have. I don’t think there is any age where it’s too young to push yourself physically, and I think I would’ve liked to have done that sooner.
Tell us about your experience filming for Tenet. What was it like working with so many big names and on such a big production?
It was pretty wild. I’ve been on set before, but this was very secretive. When I got cast, I didn’t know what the role was going to be, I didn’t know how long I was going to be shooting, they basically told me I had to be at this place on a certain day and that’s it. When I got to the hotel in Palm Springs I was obviously excited and nervous. I had lines, I didn’t know when they were going to shoot dialogue. We ended up having to drive almost two hours to set every day. I was the first in the transport van that morning, the second person was Robert Pattinson, the third was John David Washington, and then the fourth was Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I think that when I get to look back on everything when I’m an old man, I’ll always remember that moment. I was like “wow this is f*****g real”
Being able to be on a Christopher Nolan set for six weeks is basically like going to film school 101, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Tenet was such a huge production and I think that people don’t really know how big that production was. There were about 1200 people on set. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on a set that was more physically demanding, and the other three guys were all in agreement. I look back on it now and kick myself because I wasn’t in as good of shape as I should have been…. But I don’t think any of us knew what to expect.
Watching [Christopher Nolan] work is a perfect example of seeing somebody who’s so singularly focused on a mission, on a job, that no outside forces can penetrate that level. It’s pretty special to watch.
Some actors can’t stand to watch themselves on screen. Do you enjoy it, or do you cringe?
Well, I’ve only got to see the movie once, but you know, that was the first time where I watched a movie and I was like “I would have been happy to see more of me”. Everything was set up to make everyone in that movie look as good as you can possibly look.
I would have liked to have known my lines a little bit better, but you know we didn’t know what anything was about…. everything was so secretive. I think that he did that on purpose. So yeah, I can watch it and I’m excited to see it again because I’ve only been able to see it once and I think it’s a movie you probably have see a few times.
Your transition into acting required a lot of hard work, confidence, trial and error, and training. Do you think anyone can be an actor if they try, or does it require a skill or ability that cannot be taught?
I think athletes for some reason don’t understand how good of an actor that they can be. There are so many similarities. The work ethic, the consistency, the ability to do things over and over, being extremely repetitious about things. I think the reason why [acting] is difficult is because you come from a sport that doesn’t embrace emotion. I think it’s worse if you’re taught to not show emotion, and in film, that’s the only thing you can do. That’s the interesting part of it… being able to understand that emotions are good, having different emotions is good.
I think anyone can do anything as long as you work hard enough at it, but I definitely think that athletes have the ability to make that transition. You have to go all-in on it.
Your podcast “No Gruffs Given” celebrated 1 million downloads a few weeks back. What do you have planned for the podcast in the coming months? And, do you see yourself continuing with the 1-hour per week commitment long term?
What I didn’t really understand before is when you start something like this, the consistency is what creates an audience. So I have to think about the show once I’m done recording the previous week’s show. I think about what people are going to want to hear because those are the people that are coming back week after week and giving me the ability to have a million people listen to 40 podcasts or whatever it is so consistency is the big thing. I think that trying to make it different as much as you can. which is somewhat difficult because I’m just me…. I’m starting to incorporate more interviews with people which I think is interesting. The problem is I don’t like to have to ask people to do things, which is kind of why I started as just be for the first 20 episodes. So yeah, I do think that consistency is the most important thing. People are relying on you now, they invested time in you and they want to know that every Wednesday they can wake up and there’s going to be a new episode. I think that’s what is exciting and scary about it all.
What is the best piece of advice that you have received in your life?
Oh man… When I think about the moments that have shaped me, all these flashbacks come to my first couple of years in the NHL in Detroit, playing on a team with such a wide variety of characters and like 11 Hall of Famers, such a uniquely diverse group of guys. There were so many things that were said to me from Steve Yzerman telling me to talk less, which is something that I’ve never forgotten… and something that I have done the complete opposite of… to Brendan Shanahan telling me to never take a yellow taxi, a weird and interesting moment that I remember. Brett Hall teaching me how to sign my name, teaching me how to write my autograph. I think all the moments that are seared into my brain came in the first 2 years, which I think is good because you know you’re young and you should be embracing as much information as you can. I think that it’s much easier to learn things when you’re younger and I think being open to that is probably the best advice that I’ve got from all these little small pieces of advice over the years.