Matt Cooke: Hockey Player or Hockey Villain

Matt Cooke has been called by many names, most of which are reserved for certain creatures roaming the countryside in search of prey.

Beasts, be they human or otherwise that stalk and kill their prey, are feared throughout the animal kingdom.

They elicit fear and panic producing sweat, dry mouths and sometimes even uncontrollable shaking. Some hunt in packs while others remain solitary.

We, of the modern grocery and convenience store generations, often ascribe negative thoughts and words to those hunters and carnivores, the violent means by which they seize and devour their prey.

Matt Cooke is not a big man. He does not possess elite hockey skill. He does work relentlessly as a third-liner and penalty-kill specialist earning his paychecks more by effort than skill.

Don’t get me wrong; Cooke is a fine hockey player capable of possessing the puck, netting an occasional goal and pressuring the other team’s top line.

But, let’s not kid ourselves. He’ll never be mentioned among the greats of all-time, or even his own era. Cooke will never make the Hall of Fame ballot, let alone have a place in the esteemed halls located in Toronto.mattcooke

His jersey will never be retired or hung from the rafters. His counting stats will not place him at or near the top of any franchise list.

But, Matt Cooke has a reputation making him fodder, making him a relevant piece of information for years to come in the lore and legend of hockey. A sidebar, if you will.

Many players have been, are and will continue to be agitators. They’ve been present since the dawn of the sport.

You know the type. They give an extra push after the whistle. They engage the goalie. They chirp incessantly to opponents and even referees.

Their token gesturing of hands in the air and the, “I didn’t do anything,” line makes the blood collectively boil among fans and opponents.

Man, you’d love to see that guy get his. Just once. Rarely happens, though.

Their relative safety Houdinied as they have a certain knack for skating away just in the knick of time. You know, before the real fisticuffs begin.

The great agitators put on an almost nightly performance. To borrow from Harry Potter, they are virtuosos of the dark arts.

Only twice, during his time in the minors, has Cooke ever averaged more than a point per game. Playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, Cooke had one very good season, 1996-1997, and part of another.

At the professional level, his best offensive season occurred for Vancouver during the 2002-2003 season, scoring 15 goals and accumulating 42 points. Since then, he’s never accounted for more than 38 points.

Not a top line talent. So it goes for some players, lots of players. Heck, let’s say most players better find a niche other than being a prolific scorer.

Now, I may be spit-balling here a bit, but I’ll bet either someone pulled Matt Cooke aside early in his career or Matt Cooke himself realized that he was not meant to be one of those prolific scorer types.

So, what’s a player to do? Well, if you want to collect that NHL-sized paycheck for a few years, you better find a talent that makes you a valuable commodity despite not being that consistent point-producer.

So, we fast-forward a few years to find Matt Cooke universally disliked, maybe even hated. Well, I know Sens owner Eugene Melnyk definitely hates him. Pretty sure Erik Karlsson isn’t real fond of him. And, don’t even bring up the name Marc Savard!

Maybe it has something to do with Pittsburgh. While Cooke was certainly no stranger to the penalty box during stops in Vancouver and Washington, he really cranked it up in the Steel City, and not just the trip, hook or interference variety. He went on a three-year tear from 2008-2011 seasons where he averaged 112 PIMs per year.

His first suspension coincides with his arrival in Pittsburgh. In November of 2008, a hit to the head of then-New York Ranger Artem Anisimov led to a two-game suspension.

Later in January, Cooke again went high on Carolina’s Scott Walker earning his second two-game suspension of the season. Now, he was on the radar. Other players’ radars. The NHL’s radar. Cooke was quickly becoming one of those guys.

In March of 2010, Cooke delivered a shot to the head of Marc Savard. It was ugly. Savard skated with his head down and Cooke nearly removed it from his shoulders.

Unlike his two previous infractions, the league could not suspend or fine Cooke despite its violent nature. The damage done, the league and commissioner Gary Bettman created a new rule prohibiting blind side hits to the head, an obvious and deserved reaction to the hit on Savard. Effectively, Matt Cooke was the radar.

Less than a year later in Februry of 2011, Columbus Blue Jacket Fedor Tyutin absorbed a wicked hit from behind by Cooke. The definition of a repeat offender, Cooke received a four-game suspension.

Later in March, Cooke delivered an elbow to the head of New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh. Even teammates had a hard time defending the controversial forward. The league levied a 10 game suspension, as well as, the duration of the first round of the playoffs.

Cooke spent the rest of his season watching his team lose in the 1st round to lower-seeded Tampa Bay from a press box perhaps, even, watching his career go away. Many conversations were held with and about Matt Cooke in the waning moments of the 2011 season.

Since that time, Matt Cooke has altered the course of his career. He answered all the questions. He addressed his teammates and his organization. And in the 2011-2012 season, he arguably had one of his finest seasons as a pro. He tallied 38 points, but only had 44 PIMs. The last time he had less time in the box occurred in the 1999-2000 season when only playing 51 games.

At the conclusion of the 2012 season, the Penguins organization nominated him for the Bill Masterson Award given annually to the player best demonstrating perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

But just when you thought things were getting better, Cooke’s skate lacerated reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tearing it nearly 70% on February 13th.

It looked like a routine playing along the boards, the kind you see dozens of times each game. Karlsson played a puck at his feet. Cooke skated in to challenge for the puck and looked to pin Karlsson to the boards. As Cooke reached his target, his left blade hovering above the ice, he came down on Karlsson’s left leg immediately rendering the young defenseman helpless.

In the aftermath of the incident, Cooke did not receive a penalty during the game. Brendan Shanahan , NHL Senior VP of Player Safety, absolved the incident indicating that no disciplinary action would be taken against Matt Cooke. It was a hockey play. One that frequently happens. Not usually of this magnitude, but it happens.

Obviously, Ottawa players and management were disappointed. Their post-game comments alluded to Cooke’s past transgressions. Bold in his comments, owner Eugene Melnyk referred to Cooke as a goon questioning whether Cooke should be permitted to play in the league.

Since that time, Melnyk has even gone so far as to launch a forensic investigation into the incident. Melnyk clearly proclaimed his stance in public many times. Though Melnyk may be the most vocal, he is definitely not alone in his criticisms.

Recently, during a Pens/Bruins game, Boston broadcaster Jack Edwards stated, “Nominating Cooke for the Masterton is about the equivalent of nominating Sirhan Sirhan for prisoner of the year. An outrageous lack of judgment on the part of the Pittsburgh press.” It was in poor taste, particularly when you consider the week-long Boston Marathon bombing had just been resolved the previous day.

Hockey has a fine line between playing physical and being an out-and-out thug looking to hurt other players.

Certainly, Matt Cooke crossed the line a number of times. But, let’s face it. If he didn’t play on or near that line, he would be a much less effective player.

His most recent entanglement with Karlsson was awful. I don’t know a good hockey fan that wants to see that happen to anyone, let alone one of the game’s emerging players.

The incident would have been big news no matter the players involved. But, it involved Erik Karlsson . . . and, Matt Cooke.

Well, now we have nothing short of an international incident with one of the rising stars and, perhaps, one of the most notorious villains in modern hockey.

So, the question needs to be asked.

Did Cooke intentionally target Karlsson’s Achilles?

Only Cooke knows for sure. But, a great variety of hockey experts and insiders dispute whether it’s even possible to try and do that.

To hit that spot intentionally and with malice, generally covered by a boot and Kevlar socks plus whatever other layers the individual player chooses, is bordering on surgical precision.

Could you do it? Yes.

In the heat and pace of a live NHL game, is it possible? Yes.

Do the collective opinions of current and former players (at least those outside the greater Ottawa area), player safety representatives and other hockey commentators believe that no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel of a player committed that heinous act in a malicious manner? NO!

The likelihood of actually being able to do that is unlikely at best, especially when you consider that play is taking place at a high rate of speed. The experts agree.

It’s time to take Matt Cooke down from the cross. He is a questionable character with a history checkered with nonsense and moments of utter insanity.

I get it. I understand. His hits on Savard and McDonagh should be used beginning in the pee-wee leagues for what not to do.

But, the evidence, in terms of video and otherwise, suggests that it was misfortune that hurt Erik Karlsson as much as the razor sharp blade of Matt Cooke on a routine hockey play.

There exists a pretty honorable code among hockey players. If you wrong a player and you recognize that what you did was an injustice, you expect the payback. The next time you play against that team, you drop your gloves, remove your helmet and take the beating you deserve. There is justice in that.

The next time Pittsburgh played Boston after the Savard incident, Cooke took the beating. He didn’t slink away or hide behind teammates. He took it. He honored the code.

In a heated return to Ottawa this past week, Sens enforcer Chris Neil repeatedly tried to engage Cooke. Cooke would have no part of it. Neither would his teammates. While Cooke is a good teammate and well-liked in the locker room, they won’t jump to his defense when he violates the code.

But this time, this time his teammates corralled Neil and continuously steered him away from Cooke. Not because he feared Neil or because he might take a pounding. No, he didn’t drop ‘em because he was unfortunate enough to have his past history and to have that unfortunate occurrence happen to one of the rising stars of the game.

Matt Cooke is an instigator. He’s crossed the line more than once. It’s cost him games, money and even an opportunity to compete in the 2011 playoffs. But, let’s get past the Karlsson incident once and for all!


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