Once again, Pittsburgh Penguins winger Matt Cooke is in the center of a controversy. The National Hockey League finally imposed more than a wrist-slap on the most egregious cheap-shot artist in professional sports for an elbow to the head of New York Rangers forward Ryan McDonagh: a suspension for 10 regular season games and the first round of the NHL playoffs, meaning he will forfeit nearly $220,000 in salary. Cooke, who has made a habit of deliberately and methodically injuring the game's brightest stars and depriving the world of top-notch hockey talent, received the first lengthy suspension of his career. In actuality, Cooke, a former Washington Capital and Vancouver Canuck, has avoided more suspensions than he has received.
Looking at Cooke's history, there is no reason for him to still have a place in hockey. Below are the takes on Matt Cooke's latest flagrant and wanton viciousness, which is followed by his rap sheet. There is no safe haven for Cooke, not from the media, the NHL, team management, or even his teammates.
The following quotes put the severity of Cooke's misconduct into sharp focus:
"Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position. 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." - Colin Campbell, NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.” -Ray Shero, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager
"A message had to be sent and the NHL sent it. As for Cooke’s selfish act, once again he let his teammates and fans of the Penguins down...Not one person can take the Penguins' cause about cleaning up the game seriously if they continue to suit Cooke up." -Matt Shetler, Sports Haze Pittsburgh
"The consensus in hockey circles is that Matt Cooke's hit Sunday to the head of New York's Ryan McDonagh was indefensible." -Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"You don't want to see head shots, whether it's a teammate or somebody else doing it to you. That's why he's in Toronto [for the League hearing] right now." -Craig Adams, Pittsburgh Penguins forward
“Some of these guys, you’ve got to figure out a way to get through to them, and maybe this is the way to get through to Cookie. You can let guys off if it’s their first time, say it was an accident or whatever, but when it’s happened repeatedly we have to get that out of our game. Whether it’s long suspensions or fines, we have to figure out a way to eliminate that from our game.” -Matt Bradley, Cooke's former teammate and road roommate on the Washington Capitals
"You look at that hit, it’s exactly what we’re saying has got to come out of the game. That’s the kind of hit that you don’t like to see. It was direct to the head and I’m sure [Cooke would] say the same thing." -Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs captain
"He’s deliberately trying to hurt someone there, no question. It’s the same guy—it’s the same name every time. Sick of seeing that guy do that. He’s a dangerous player for sure." -Clarke MacArthur, Toronto Maple Leafs forward
"I made a mistake. I'm the one that's accountable for that. I take full responsibility for it. I'm sorry to my teammates, my management, my coaching staff and my organization." -Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh Penguins forward
That sums up Matt Cooke's latest infraction. Interesting to note the change in rhetoric from Cooke less than 2 weeks after returning from his first suspension this year and less than 3 weeks before this latest suspension:
"I've always said that, you know, what I am on the ice is a persona that has enabled me to stay in the league for 13 years. It's not who I am, and it's not what makes me. It's just something I have to do to stay in the NHL." -Matt Cooke, (SB Nation, 3/3/11)
Now on to his history of violence, though Don Cherry lays it out best:
"Cooke was again in the spotlight after delivering a dangerous knee-on-knee hit to Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin during a nationally televised game. After being warned by the NHL, he earned a four-game suspension two days later by viciously boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin." -Sports Illustrated
"Does it surprise you? Does it surprise you that Matt Cooke would be so ... chicken [expletive] and do that? That situation last night did not happen instinctively. It did not happen quickly. He had three or four seconds to make up his mind and drive those numbers into the glass. That's a situation where you take Matt Cooke, because of his history, into the office and you give him 20 games flat. Twenty games, gone, thanks for coming. Matt Cooke, No. 1, doesn't have respect for anyone. He's one of the least favorite guys in the league by the players for a reason. Hitting [Marc] Savard, having that all situation ... But this situation last night is exactly what gives players bad names, gives guys bad names. It's why we have injuries. It's why someone's going to get either paralyzed or killed on the ice one of these days. Because of idiot, idiot, idiot people and plays like Matt Cooke did [Tuesday] night." -Jeremy Roenick, former NHL all-star and Versus hockey analyst
-Suspended for two games for a "deliberate check to the head area" on New York Rangers forward Artem Anisimov, 11/29/09. (Video)
-Suspended for two games for delivering a hit to the head of Carolina Hurricanes' forward Scott Walker, 1/20/09
-Fined $2,500 for a hit on Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier, who required surgery, 4/3/08. (More, More, More)
-Suspended for two games for spearing Minnesota Wild forward Matt Johnson, 02/21/04 (Hockeyfights info)
Here are just a few hits he didn't get suspended for. The big one, of course, was the blatant decapitation of Marc Savard last March that did not result in a suspension, but did result in a major rule change in the NHL.
"Matt Cooke will not be suspended by the NHL for 'a lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and or the principal point of contact' on Boston Bruins star center Marc Savard. Savard, who has scored 392 points in 361 games since the NHL Lockout, was carried off the ice on a stretcher after suffering a Grade 2 concussion and will miss significant time. Cooke, who has 127 points and 410 Penalty Minutes in 344 games since the lockout, is a repeat offender. Interesting to note their respective opinions on this matter in October of 2007. " -Andy Green, A Capital Offense, 3/10/10
His own teammate, Bill Guerin, wouldn't even defend Cooke for that hit: "If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there's got to be something. Actions happen. Guys don't mean to hurt each other, but they do. You got to pay a price for that. We're all under the same umbrella, whether the guy's on my team and I'm sitting right next to him or he's playing in California. It doesn't matter. We're all playing in the same league. We all want the same safety. We all want to be looked after the same way. I understand [Cooke] is on my team but, hey, he's in a tough spot."
Vincent Lecavalier also chimed in, "He's got no respect for the players.Matt Cooke, he's been doing that for a long time. He knew exactly what he was doing when he came with his shoulder. He knew exactly that he was going to hit his head and that's how guys get hurt. Look at Marc Savard, he's out for the season. They are protecting the wrong guy, that's for sure."
Martin St. Louis concurred, "There are certain players in this league, that you tend to see on the highlights with hits like that. I don't think it's a coincidence that it was given by Matt Cooke...I think that there are times when guys are vulnerable and he still follows through. If that hit is not a suspension, I don't know what is...you get on the ice and it's like no regard for the other guy's well-being."
For more, Russian Machine Never Breaks has a great list and videos.
Cooke isn't known for playing with dignity, and his penalties back this up. He makes a habit of preying on the weak and unsuspecting. Cooke has racked up 988 penalty minutes in 805 career games, but with only 20 fights in the NHL, that means 888 PIM in 805 games were for something else. NHL legend and former Pittsburgh Penguin Gary Roberts said it best in February 2009, "...Obviously he's famous for diving and never really playing with any honor. Unfortunately the rules protect guys like that." Roberts knows something about toughness and honor: he scored 438 goals in 1,224 games and won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication for coming back from a neck injury. He had 23 fights in his first 2 seasons alone.
Damian Cristodero also chimed in in December 2008: "Cooke and Lecavalier on Tuesday met for the first time since the incident, and Lecavalier went after him with 3:37 left in the first period. Cooke did not engage and Lecavalier got two minutes for roughing...Cooke should have given Lecavalier the chance, and shown him some respect in the process, to defend his honor."
This season, Cooke sits 16th in the NHL with 129 penalty minutes, but is 2nd in minor penalties (37). Nobody in the top 35 in PIM has fewer fights (3), and his fight card isn't exactly impressive. This season he has fought Jody Shelley (tough guy), Jason Pominville (2008 Lady Byng Finalist), and Derick Brassard (122 PIM in 192 games, retaliation for illegal hit on Tyutin). He has also racked up: 1 Game Misconduct, 2 Misconducts, a Charging Major, an Elbowing Major, plus minor penalties for Roughing (10), Kneeing (1), Boarding (3), Cross-Checking (2), Slashing (1), Unsportsmanlike Conduct (2), and High Sticking (1). SB Nation calls him one of the dirtiest players in the NHL.
Last season was more of the same, dirty penalties and cheap fights in Cooke's 106 PIM. Cooke took minors for Clipping (1), Roughing (7), Elbowing (1), Diving (1), Unsportsmanlike Conduct (3), Cross-Checking (2), Slashing (1), and High Sticking (5). Of his 6 fights, only one was against a tough guy (Shawn Thornton), the others were against 41-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, 18-year old rookie Evander Kane, 16-year veteran Rob Niedermayer (One 100 PIM season), Rangers Captain Chris Drury (614 PTS, 468 PIM in 891 GP), and scoring winger Ryan Callahan (175 PIM in 278 GP). It's a clear pattern.
Despite Cooke's ability to play hockey, he has no place in this game. The NHL waited far too long to curtail his dangerous play, and now more exciting young players have had their careers cut short by a predator, which will cost them millions of dollars and many months or even years of very real physical pain and disability. There should be no "next time" for a player like this, he's had his "next times" already. He should never step on the ice as a professional hockey player again. It is only the culture of family and forgiveness in the NHL and in a classy organization like the Pittsburgh Penguins that will mean Cooke could have a future in this game, and that is the very culture Cooke has been taking advantage of and making a travesty of his entire career.