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Matt Cooke can be reformed and still be an injurious [expletive]

Greg Wyshynski
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NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 20: Matt Cooke #24 of the Minnesota Wild looks on against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 20, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The world is separated into those who preach and those who practice what they preach. I’d wager we have more respect for the latter as a society; don’t tell us “I’ll never make that mistake again,” just, like, don’t make it again. We’ll notice.

Matt Cooke of the Minnesota Wild has been on parole since March 2011, when he was suspended for 10 games and the first round of the postseason while with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was his sixth suspension and second one that season. His career in the NHL was in question: Could this guy actually contribute anything beyond headhunting and cheap shots?

That August, Cooke famously came clean to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: a health crisis for his wife weighed on him, and gave him new perspective on his behavior. The Penguins were willing to stick by him despite his becoming a liability through suspensions. He was willing to change.

"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that,” he said at the time.

On Monday, it can be argued he flushed that all down the toilet, on bended knee.

His collision with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie injured his opponent’s knee in Game 3 and put Cooke back on trial, but in the hockey community and within the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. He has an in-person hearing scheduled, meaning a suspension of five games or more.

 

It could be massive, based on Cooke’s history of suspensions.

Then again, we’re dealing with a unique statute of limitations here.

Pay no attention to the 18-month window that determines whether a player is a repeat offender in the NHL. That’s merely the time frame that affect the financial penalty for the player during his suspension. His suspension history, no matter how far back it stretches, is fair game for Stephane Quintal and the Department of Player Safety.

So the essential question is: Was Matt Cooke a reformed criminal or a dormant one?

Adrian Dater of the Denver Post feels vindicated because he never believed Cooke could change:

I also feel sorry for many in my media profession, who wrote glowing profiles of Matt Cooke, the “reformed criminal.” It was all a coordinated PR plan by Cooke and his handlers, and the smart media people I know saw right through it, but many others were duped. I give Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Jim Souhan huge props, for seeing through the Cooke con job from the start.

Barry Petchesky of Deadspin has a more measured, better considered take:

The shades of gray are more boring and closer to the truth. This is a guy who realized his value long before he made it to the NHL, and enjoyed a decade-long career based off his hitting before his style threatened to see him pushed out of the league at a time player safety was becoming all-important. Less an old dog learning new tricks than a player struggling to control his worst impulses, Cooke did an solid job of reining himself in—three years without a suspension speaks to that. But he's not a fundamentally different hockey player.

Where I disagree with Petchesky: Mark me down as one of those naïve believers that Cooke was a different player than he was in 2011.

It’s not just suspensions. It’s the totality of his play:

* Cooke has 134 PIMs in his last 212 NHL regular-season games. For comparison’s sake, Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings has 141 PIMs in the same span.

* Cooke has two misconduct penalties in the last three seasons.

* Cooke hasn’t had a major penalty in the last three seasons.

Like we said: Some preach, and some practice what they preach. And while perhaps the crux of this is suppression of violent tendencies, two and a half seasons is a hell of a sample size to show that Cooke was in fact reformed.

He wanted “to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules.” And he did.

Until Monday night, and his blatant kneeing of Barrie.

None of this is a defense of that action. He was on a search and destroy mission all night against Colorado, tasked with playing on the edge against an Avalanche team that was having its way with Minnesota offensively. To that end, Cooke actually made a difference: Playing the majority of this minutes against Paul Statsny and Nathan MacKinnon, Cooke’s line held them scoreless.

Which, of course, makes that idiotic and injurious hit on Barrie the epitome of old-school Matt Cooke: It overshadows every positive thing the guy does in the rest of his minutes, and allows critics like Dater to spew the following:

In a year or two, max, he’ll be out of the league. He’ll have no more money coming in, and he’ll have to sit and really look at what his career was all about. He’ll realize he had no respect of anybody in the game, and that will include his teammates – which will hurt the most.

Thing is, he earned that respect in the last three seasons. Perhaps now he squandered it. Which brings us back to the NHL and Matt Cooke.

How do they view his previous six suspensions? As the same long, sad history, or as a chapter in Cooke’s career when he was completely reckless? Do they give him credit for good behavior, or is his career always marred by his previous bad behavior?

There are many fascinating, complicated layers to this decision, from the player trade off (Barrie is much more vital to the Avs than Cooke to the Wild) to the incident (knee-on-knee hits rarely earn players more than five games) to the conundrum that is Matt Cooke.

I believe he changed his game, and the numbers don’t lie. But I also understand if I’m the last person in the hockey world that would give him the benefit of the doubt after what he did to Tyson Barrie, the Avalanche, the Wild and the NHL last night.

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