Cooke proves change is possible
Penguins winger Matt Cooke was the NHL poster boy for questionable hits
Cooke has transformed his game, accumulating just 30 PIM in 67 games
Cooke has provided a blueprint to curb the scourge of blows to the head
Matt Cooke for Lady Byng.
The preceding phrase was written with a wink, of course, although Cooke is being chirped with that same kind of talk, in jest (he hopes), in the Penguins' dressing room.
There is a better chance of the Oilers surging into the playoffs than Cooke actually winning the award given to the "player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."
He might make the five-person ballots of a few cheeky members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, but his curious candidacy will languish deservedly behind the usual collection of nice-guy, high-end forwards -- the Lightning's Martin St. Louis, the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, the Stars' Loui Eriksson --- and maybe a defenseman like the Panthers' Brian Campbell. Still, the flippant thought of Cooke as one of the three finalists in Las Vegas, his even being in the same zip code as the Lady Byng, is wondrous strange.
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The third-liner had been hockey's public enemy, poster boy for the game's ills. He had been suspended more often than disbelief, including five times for blows to the head. He had effectively ended the career of former Bruins center Marc Savard, who has yet to officially retire. He was a useful player who was better known as a major piece of work.
Now with less than a month remaining, Cooke has 15 minor penalties, and no majors, in 67 games. Last season, which ended with a sweeping Cooke suspension in which he forfeited in excess of $200,000 in salary, he took 39 minors in 67 games. Cooke talked the talk of reinventing himself last spring after his elbow to the head of Rangers' defenseman Ryan McDonagh cost the him 10 games and the first round of the playoffs, but he has walked the walk -- even if the path of hockey righteousness has been slippery in stretches.
There is a precedent for the transmogrification, one that links Cooke and Stan Mikita, an unlikely pair on the surface. Cooke is a plugger who has carved out a career precisely because he has been willing to "finish" his checks. Mikita, a Hall of Fame center with the Blackhawks, averaged more than a point per game playing primarily in an era when a 20-goal scorer was considered a formidable talent.
But Mikita was a miserable cuss for the first seven years of his career, accruing at least 97 penalty minutes five times -- including a high of 154 in 1964-65. The following season the Hawks reached the Stanley Cup final against Montreal, losing 4-0 in Game 7. Mikita later said he felt worn out in that match, which he attributed to all the additional scrums and other extracurricular activity that had engage his attention during the slog of the season. He made a conscious decision to stay away from energy-sapping nonsense. The following two seasons he picked up 12 and 14 penalty minutes while recording 75 goals and 109 assists, winning his a pair of Lady Byngs. Mikita would not retire until 1979-80 but never returned to his nefarious ways. He racked up more than 52 penalty minutes only once in the final 14 years of his career.
"I'd read that he decided to change after his daughter went to a game and was unhappy that he'd taken three or four penalties," Cooke said by telephone this week, two years and one day after the brutal (and unpenalized) hit on Savard. "But that story makes more sense. I read the other thing online, so ..."
He speaks carefully, almost reluctantly, about the transformation, as if he were still trying out The New Matt Cooke. There are the Lady Byng jibes in the nothing-sacred Penguins dressing room, of course, but mostly he still has fresh memories of a 20-game or so stretch in midseason when he felt he utterly lost. In a conversation with SI.com in early February, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said every game in a big hockey market like Toronto or Montreal or, given the Savard concussion, Boston, was like Day 1 for Cooke. But Cooke was not worried about how others viewed him. He was concerned about turning into the wrong kind of player.
"There was a fear of an accidental hit turning out bad," Cooke says. "And so I really didn't hit much at all. I was getting frustrated at myself. I was screaming at the refs. I was turning away from legal checks. At the time I watched a lot of video with our video [coordinator], Jim Britt. We watched a lot of video of me skating all that way and then turning away. I didn't trust the situation. I was struggling to stay focused on what I had to do, but I put in enough time watching and got it straightened out."
The remedial video work actually started last March. The suspension, ultimately season-ending when the Penguins lost to Tampa Bay in Game 7, gave Cooke sufficient time to lay a new foundation. In an effort to be back for the second round, maybe new and certainly improved, he spent perhaps 30 hours with Bylsma reviewing video of his own hits -- and the hits of others.
Ryan Callahan was one Cooke template. The Rangers captain is a hard-edged player, among the most relentless NHL checkers. But after exceeding 100 PIMs twice in junior, Callahan never has taken more than 48 minutes in a season since entering the NHL in 2006-07.
"The thing was, the way I had always played the game was to get the biggest hit possible," Cooke says. "I know that [Mike Keenan, Cooke's first coach in Vancouver in 1998-99] liked it. Now I've learned not to try. I'll still try to get the hit, but now I'm reading other things, the stick, if, say, it's a left-handed guy, how he might turn into the boards. I'm assessing other tendencies to see if the play's there. If it's a 50-50 thing, I won't do it.
"We were playing Columbus [Feb. 26] and [defenseman Fedor] Tyutin did the same thing to me three or four times. He goes back for the puck, stares at me for a split second so he knows I'm coming, and then he turns his back to me. I've watched that kind of play enough that now I just try to get my stick in, to get the puck. Dan joked with me, 'You're not trying to hit him there, are you?'"
Cooke and Tyutin had a costly history. Last February Cooke received a four-game suspension for precisely that kind of hit from behind on the Blue Jackets defenseman. The incident did nothing to enhance Cooke's standing in Pittsburgh -- he is a valuable third-liner when flanking Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy and useless when he is out of the lineup -- but the McDonagh elbow could have irretrievably fractured the relationship. Cooke, who is making $1.8 million annually through next season, was more than a recidivist. He was becoming a liability.
"In the first interview I gave after the [McDonagh hit], I took full responsibility and said I needed to change," Cooke said. "That was a first. I had argued every other suspension. Not this one. It was completely accidental that I hit Ryan McDonagh in the head, but I still did it. I took the responsibility. It was for real.
"This is not a diet, where you go on and off it. This is my livelihood. I needed to do this for my family, for my teammates, for everything."
So this is Matt Cooke, 2.0.
Even if he will be on double-secret probation until the day he retires, Cooke has provided a potentially helpful blueprint. Yes, NHL hockey is blindingly quick. There are a lot of "oops" on the ice. Things do happen. But Cooke's conscious decision to change merely underscores that sometimes players have options in the way they hit an opponent. If the decisions are the proper ones, there is a chance for the league to curb the scourge of blows to the head.
This next part might sound strange as "Matt Cooke, Lady Byng candidate," but the NHL might end up owing Cooke, the guy with the rap sheet, a debt of gratitude.
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