Cooke’s senseless elbow makes NHL’s job easy

DETROIT – For once, the NHL’s job was easy. Matt Cooke(notes) made it easy. He will sit out the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs because he had no excuse for the elbow he threw into the head of the New York RangersRyan McDonagh(notes) on Sunday, the latest incident for the player widely considered the dirtiest in hockey.

This time, it’s the team’s job that’s tough. As Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby(notes) recovers from a concussion and the player safety debate rages, the Penguins are trying to take the lead, calling for zero tolerance on head shots and stiffer discipline for repeat offenders. At minimum, they must make it clear they do not condone Cooke’s conduct.

Matt Cooke has been suspended for the rest of the regular season and first round of the playoffs.
(Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

General manager Ray Shero started by releasing a statement Monday after he attended Cooke’s disciplinary hearing in Toronto and the suspension was announced, saying the punishment was warranted “because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game.”

“We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action is unacceptable and cannot happen,” Shero said. “Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”

That’s a very strong message right there, a team supporting the league instead of its player. It stands in stark contrast to the statement released by owner Mario Lemieux on Feb. 13, when he ripped the league for how it handled a fight-filled game between the Penguins and New York Islanders on Feb. 11. When he complained about the integrity of the game and player safety with no mention of his team’s own sins, he came off as a hypocrite – primarily because he employed Cooke.

The problem is, despite Shero’s statement, Lemieux still employs Cooke. The Penguins could make an even stronger statement by cutting ties with Cooke. They can’t keep the moral high ground if they keep him. You know someone would be willing to absorb the initial PR hit to snap up a pest who can play. But that team won’t have said and done the things the Penguins have. This is the position in which the Penguins have put themselves – the position in which Cooke has put them.

“We obviously want him on the team,” Penguins defenseman Paul Martin(notes) said. “We think he’s a great asset to the team. He plays hard. He works hard. He does a good job. So that’s what’s tough, when stuff like that happens and continues to happen, to find that balance.”

Everyone knows Cooke’s history. It goes back a long way, but let’s just go back to last season. He threw a legal hit on the Boston BruinsMarc Savard(notes) that was so severe, it helped usher in Rule 48, which bans blindside hits to the head.

This season, Cooke stuck out his leg on the Washington CapitalsAlex Ovechkin(notes), drawing a $2,500 fine and a rebuke from Colin Campbell, the NHL’s executive senior vice-president of hockey operations. Then he hit Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin(notes) from behind, drawing a four-game suspension – the fourth suspension of his career.

Now this.

“Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position,” Campbell said in a statement. “This isn’t the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behavior on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response.”

This didn’t involve any complicated untangling of cause and effect. This wasn’t about the rules. This wasn’t about the speed of the game. This wasn’t about too much padding on players or not enough padding on stanchions. No one would call this a hockey play or defend it as such.

This was simply stunning in its senselessness. Cooke skated toward McDonagh at about the red line. He could have finished a hard, clean bodycheck along the left-wing boards. Instead, he stuck up his left elbow. He struck McDonagh in the right side of the jaw just after McDonagh played the puck.

“It’s not like it’s borderline, where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s hard to avoid that kind of thing,’ ” said Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart(notes), who suffered a broken jaw earlier this season after a hit by the Calgary FlamesTom Kostopoulos(notes), who received a six-game suspension. “We’re trying to hammer home the point of avoiding head shots. That’s a play where it should have been pretty easy to avoid something like that.”

This was lack of respect with many layers. It starts with McDonagh, who got up, shook out his jaw and finished the game, but could have been injured badly. It goes from the top to the bottom of the Penguins organization.

There is Lemieux. Cooke didn’t seem all that upset about the heat his owner took after the Islanders statement, telling Sports Illustrated: “I guess Mario is guilty by association.” Lemieux later wrote a letter to commissioner Gary Bettman proposing stiffer supplemental discipline for repeat offenders and holding their teams accountable with escalating fines.

There is Shero, who came to the general managers’ meetings last week in Boca Raton, Fla., as one of the few calling for a ban on head shots. He said it was the official position of the Penguins and also his personal position, as a father with a 15-year-old son, Christopher, recovering from a concussion suffered in hockey.

There are Bylsma and the rest of the Penguins, who need Cooke’s grit for the stretch run and playoffs, especially with Evgeni Malkin(notes) out with a knee injury and Crosby’s status uncertain. They entered Monday night’s game in Detroit six points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference but only one point ahead of the fifth-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

“People don’t realize how good of a player he is,” teammate Craig Adams(notes) said. “If you don’t watch him play every night, you don’t know. We know. I’m more concerned with him missing time.”

Which brings us to Cooke himself. It shows a lack of self-respect for Cooke to do these things. Why would he reinforce his reputation as the NHL’s dirtiest player when he could otherwise be known as a tough, gritty, key contributor to a championship-caliber team? The guy has 12 goals and 30 points this season. He is an important part of the league’s top penalty-killing unit and is tied for second in shorthanded points with six. He has been serving as an alternate captain, the letter on his sweater validating him as a team leader while some usual ‘A’-listers are injured.

“When Matt Cooke plays within the rules, he’s been very successful for us and helped us be successful,” said Bylsma, noting how Cooke helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009. “That’s the rub. It’s got to be within the rules, and we’re dealing with that now.”

The Penguins have spent a lot of time trying to teach Cooke how to stay within the rules, showing him video, giving him examples. They say he has struggled with it at times, passing up hits, losing his edge. Still, Cooke keeps finding ways to go over the edge – over and over again. We’ll see if this is enough.

Nothing has been so far.

“I think the suspensions he gets don’t really bother him,” said the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg(notes), who said he would have suspended Cooke for the rest of the season, including the playoffs, and then “see what we’re going to do after that.” “It’s the same guys who go out and do this all the time. We’ve just got to somehow find a way to make them stop.”

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 21, 2011