Last year, the Minnesota Wild wowed their fans in free agency, scooping up the two hottest commodities on the market in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise and revitalizing the franchise.
This year, the Wild's haul wasn't quite as fan-pleasing. They signed Matt Cooke. Not everyone was into it.
With his divisive history -- which includes, among other injurious incidents, breaking the nose of a Wild defenceman with a sucker punch 11 years ago -- Cooke will be hard-pressed to win over hockey fans in Minnesota. That he's effectively replacing fan favourite Cal Clutterbuck compounds the issue.
So does Cooke's desire to wear No. 24, the number synonymous with the late Derek Boogaard.
He has worn the number 24 his whole career. That was Derek Boogaard's number with the Wild. Martin Havlat wore that for a season with the Wild, but for the most part, it is remembered as Boogaard's number.
Cooke doesn't want to disrespect the Boogaard family. It is the only number he has worn professionally, and he'd like to wear it in Minnesota, but he has reached out to the Boogaard family in hopes it will support his desire to wear it.
That's the right gesture from Cooke, and the Boogaard family may very well support Cooke's desire to stick with his usual number.
But will the fans of Minnesota, not to mention fans elsewhere, who have enough reasons to dislike Cooke without him wearing that kind of iconic number for Wild fans?
It calls to mind Mark Messier's insistence on wearing the No. 11 in Vancouver despite left winger Wayne Maki wearing the number before he died of brain cancer in 1974. Fans were unnerved by this, especially since Messier didn't reach out to the family. It was just one more strike against a player Vancouver fans already disliked due to his role in denying them a Stanley Cup four seasons earlier.
Like Messier, Cooke has some baggage to overcome here. Instead, he seems set to take on more. Wearing the sweater associated with one of hockey's most tragic deaths is a questionable P.R. move.
Stanley Cup of Chowder (who have their own reasons to dislike Cooke, so bias warning) thinks it's beyond questionable:
What happened to Derek was tragic, and (more importantly) a direct result of the things he did in a Wild sweater, wearing number 24. To take that away from him would be a terrible thing to do. It feels disrespectful. It feels like stealing the legacy of a man who can no longer do anything to build one. Matt Cooke's legacy is built on a foundation of taking things away from his fellow NHLers. He is a decent defensive forward, so he takes away the pass. He takes away the puck. But he takes more than your average hockey player. He's also taken away Marc Savard's career. He's shortened or put on hold others while concussions clear and knees rebuild.
Is Matt Cooke so shameless that he would take from the dead?
This might be a little over the top. But, again, the reaction Matt Cooke inspires is rarely charitable or grounded, and if he spends his time in Minnesota wearing the No. 24, that's unlikely to change.
In defence of Cooke -- a sentence that one assumes will continue to be written as long as he plays -- this whole thing is muddied by his complicated history. He was a dirty player once, but he's since reformed his game (despite what Eugene Melnyk would tell you, which is a shame, since he likely has some forensic files that would probably help to corroborate Cooke's reformation).
And, like Cooke's game since his last run-in with the Department of Player Safety, the winger is going about things the right way here. Coming from another player, people might be able to see that. Reaching out to the Boogaard family -- which he doesn't have to do, since the number's not retired -- could be seen as a kind and respectful gesture. But from Cooke, it's evidence of continued, moustache-twirling, leg-and-legacy-stomping villainy.
That's not fair. I see no reason he shouldn't be allowed to wear Boogaard's number with the family's blessing, and it looks like he has it. From the Star Tribune:
It sounds like Cooke will receive that blessing from Joanne and Len Boogaard. Derek’s dad, Len, forwarded Cooke’s email to siblings Krysten, Aaron and Ryan.
“I read the e-mail and I greatly respect Matt for what he said in it,” brother Ryan Boogaard told me in an email. “I texted my dad and told him I have no issues with it. I’m very impressed with Matt for what he did by reaching out to my parents. He didn't have to do it as he could have just worn #24, but he thought of Derek and our family before doing so. I knew that someone would eventually wear #24 and I was not expecting them to reach out to us, so when Matt did, I could not have been happier.”
That's good enough for me. But I'm not a Minnesotan, and when it comes to my willingness to give Cooke the benefit of the doubt, I think I'm in the minority.
Should he take a different number?
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