That Matt Cooke(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be suspended for 10 games wasn't an outlandish prediction. It allows the NHL to puff out its chest, declare him banned "FOR THE REST OF THE REGULAR SEASON" and place a boot on his neck as it raises a sword in victory, having slain the demon.
That Matt Cooke was also suspended for the first round of the playoffs was a surprise. A pleasant one for most, although probably not the Penguins, who would no doubt love to see the NHL's preeminent pest give Stamkos or Lecavalier the red-ass for seven games. But a surprise nonetheless, at least within the context of the NHL's leniency in many of its suspensions (and decisions not to suspend) this season.
But when the nodding smirks and "atta boys!" for Colin Campbell fade, we're left with the stark reality that this was a layup. A tap-in from the side of the net on a 5-on-3 power play; just like giving Trevor Gillies(notes) 10 games, for a play that didn't warrant it, was an empty netter.
Repeat offenders, dregs of the hockey society, make for handy political statements. We've waited years — YEARS — for Matt Cooke to finally "get his." To put it in wrestling terms: The NHL had been building heat for a heel, and Monday was that pay-per-view match when his tormented targets get their comeuppance. It was an easy call. It was a politically safe call.
But is it a call the league will make again for a less convenient defendant?
As Matt Cooke does his time, we're left to wonder if this is a one-off punishment or if the NHL is finally going to sack-up and, to use the well-worn hockey cliché, "get this garbage out of the game."
So yes, the NHL has slipped a collar on Matt Cooke, at long last. Now the question is what happens to the next guy who tries to hurt somebody, and the next, and the next. The league's general managers approved stiffer suspensions starting next season, but until they start getting handed out we can only wonder what that actually entails. If the NHL goes back to two-bit two-gamers, then they haven't moved much.
Did the NHL send a message? It sent one to Matt Cooke, sure. Now it just needs to send a message to everybody else.
Again, the punishments doled out for Cooke and Gillies are the exception. Take a look at the suspensions the league lists for this season on its official media site:
Feb. 9, 2011: Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh Penguins, 4 games (Boarding)
Feb. 13, 2011: Trevor Gilles, New York Islanders, 9 games (Blow to head)
Feb. 13, 2011: Matt Martin, New York Islanders, 4 games (Sucker Punch)
March 4, 2011: Trevor Gillies, New York Islanders, 10 games (Blow to head)
March 21, 2011: Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh Penguins, 10 games and first round of playoffs (Elbowing)
Quite a year, huh?
Thirty-one suspensions, for various and sundry reasons. Some victims were injured, others returned to the game. Some players were repeat offenders, others seemed to skate by on reputation. Some punishments deserve applause while others create befuddlement.
Would having taken a stand on one of these in, oh, November meant that some of the 17 suspensions we've had in the last three months could have been deterred? If you believe the NHL's manta that supplemental discipline is, at its core, a deterrent, then yes.
So with Cooke gone until Round 2 and Gillies having been handed a 19-game ban in total, does this signal a new day for Colin Campbell and the NHL's statement makers? Are the days of nickel-and-dime punishment over?
This time, it didn't. This time, the public yelled, and kept on yelling. Was it the fact that Cooke's effectively career-ending hit on Marc Savard(notes) last year went unpenalized? Was it Mike Richards(notes) on David Booth(notes), Zdeno Chara(notes) on Max Pacioretty(notes)? Was it Sidney Crosby(notes) missing perhaps three months or more from a head blow deemed accidental?
Did the sponsors and politicians rattling their swords have an effect in the end, even as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman scoffed at them? Did the weakness of Campbell's office in dealing with the first few headshot incidents coming out of the GMs' meetings last week in Florida inspire a reading of the riot act at some higher level than the senior vice-president of hockey ops?
Or was it just such a nobrainer, such a perfect storm of indefensibility and culprit and team leadership, that Campbell had no fear of bringing the hammer down? Is the madness over, at last? Have clearer heads prevailed? Or was this a one-off?
I'm cautiously optimistic that the tolerance for headshots in the NHL is changing. It was a positive sign that the Penguins organization, even Cooke himself, accepted the punishment and made a point of saying that Cooke has to change. But it's not just Cooke, it's each and every NHL player who needs to re-examine how he plays the game. Otherwise, these acts of idiocy will continue.
Hate to play the cynic here, but those acts of idiocy are going nowhere, even if Cooke is perp-walked out of the NHL one day.
Look at that list of names above. There are marginal players. There are all-stars. There are veterans and there are rookies.
Beyond Cooke and Gillies, 26 players have been suspended this season. Go ahead: Demonize the black sheep. Incarcerate the miscreants. But until the NHL does more than slam the gavel on the easy cases, the culture remains toxic. If it's a matter of not wanting to take Dany Heatley away from the Sharks for six games, then change the bylaws in the next CBA.
Go. For. Their. Wallets.