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Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux wasn't biting the hand that feeds him as much as gnawing off the entire arm. In a scathing statement issued after a 9--3 loss to the Islanders on Feb. 11 that featured 346 minutes' worth of penalties, a game that trafficked in the basest of instincts and cruelest of NHL stereotypes, the Hall of Famer labeled the match a "travesty" and darkly insinuated he might walk away from hockey. The impact? Lemieux was almost immediately branded a two-bit phony, a sanctimonious sham. From all of the vitriol dumped on him, the outrage, basically, could be distilled to this: Lemieux had no business sermonizing as long as he employs the man widely considered the dirtiest player in the NHL.
"I guess," says Matt Cooke, who missed that game because he was serving a suspension, "Mario is guilty by association."
Cooke's wry smile is punctuated by a missing front tooth, which, in the demi-light of the Penguins' empty dressing room, makes him look like a rueful jack-o'-lantern. He speaks softly, at least off the ice. He is 32, but his exuberance—and penchant for dressing room pranks—suggest a player a decade younger. He is a compact 205-pounder who would be just another useful third-line leftwinger if not for the trail of broken bodies he has left in his wake and the recent fatwa issued against him.
Apparently the NHL does not have a violence problem as much as it has a Matt Cooke problem. Ken Daneyko, a three-time Stanley Cup winner as a Devils defenseman, and now a between-periods analyst for New Jersey on MSG Network, offered a solution. Warming to the subject on a radio show on Feb. 9, Daneyko said, "I'm as crazy as this: The NHL [should declare] open season for one week on Matt Cooke. You won't get suspended. Then we'll see if he'll continue [dishing out cheap hits] for the rest of the season or his career."
Cooke had already been having a turbulent week before Daneyko painted a bull's-eye on his sweater. With Pittsburgh trailing the Capitals by two goals in the final four minutes of a nationally televised game on Feb. 6, Cooke dinged Washington star Alex Ovechkin with a drive-by, knee-on-knee check. After the match Washington's Bruce Boudreau, who coached Cooke for 17 games in 2008, said, "It's Matt Cooke. Need we say more? It's not his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody. Then he goes to the ref and says, 'What did I do?' He knows damn well what he did." Cooke's penalty drew the maximum $2,500 fine and a rebuke from NHL senior executive vice president Colin Campbell, who told Cooke he did not want to be having any more such discussions with him in the immediate future. Two days later Campbell and Cooke spoke again, this time in a formal hearing. Insufficiently chastened, Cooke had rammed Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind into the end boards. Campbell suspended Cooke for four games, with $87,804.88 in lost salary, for a hit that former star Jeremy Roenick termed "chickens---" and worthy of a 20-game suspension.
Campbell's ruling was hardly surprising. The shocking thing about Cooke's suspension was that it was just the fourth—and longest—of a play-on-the-edge career that has spanned 800 NHL games. For all the worst-person-in-the-world bile directed at him, his suspensions total just 10 games. Disbelief has been suspended far more often than Cooke. Says former Penguins teammate Bill Guerin, "I told him he got one game for hitting from behind, one game for not thinking and two games for being Matt Cooke."
"If people suggest our game is violent," says Brad May, the former enforcer who also played with Cooke in Vancouver, "Matt Cooke is one of the guys inciting this violence."
There is actually much to admire in Cooke's game. He has won a Cup, scored at least 10 goals in nine of the past 10 seasons—he scored 15 last year with essentially no power-play time—and made himself invaluable on the penalty kill. In his first game back from suspension, he cashed in a shorthanded goal in a 3--2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Feb. 20. (He is tied for the NHL lead with six shorthanded points.) Cooke is an actual player, unlike the Islanders' Trevor Gillies, who is one of three skaters in the past 10 years to have more than 100 penalty minutes in fewer than 100 minutes of ice time. (Gillies was suspended last Friday for the second time in less than a month for his hit to the head of the Wild's Cal Clutterbuck.) Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero clearly values Cooke. Although Shero generally offers role players no more than two-year contracts, last June he signed Cooke to a three-year deal worth $1.8 million annually. "Cookie can create things," says Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who is out indefinitely after suffering a concussion on Jan. 5. "It's not that he's just bouncing off bodies out there."
Cooke might even qualify as an impact player, but his impact is most apparent at the point of contact. With good checks and bad, with hits that stretched rules and in one memorable case rewrote them, Cooke has earned a great living and a poor reputation. He has devastated the careers of star players. In March 2010 he concussed the Bruins' Marc Savard with a predatory blind-side hit, a check that moved the NHL to adopt Rule 48, which bans lateral hits that target the head. As a member of the Capitals in April 2008, he hit Vincent Lecavalier when the Lightning center did not have the puck, knocking him to the ice and dislocating his shoulder, an injury that required surgery. Savard, currently out for the season with another concussion, has played just 25 regular season games since being wallpapered by Cooke. Lecavalier scored 192 goals in the five seasons before his shoulder surgery, .475 per game. Postsurgery, his scoring average has dropped to .333 goals per game. (Cooke also shredded the knee of Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov in the 2010 playoffs with a devastating, if perfectly legal, check; Markov played seven games in 2010--11 before reinjuring the knee, which required more reconstructive surgery.) Cooke, fined $2,500 for the Lecavalier hit but spared supplementary discipline for blindsiding Savard, also targeted the Rangers' Artem Anisimov and the Hurricanes' Scott Walker in 2009, earning a pair of two-game suspensions. Amid the accusations of headhunting, there is evidence Cooke has not ignored other body parts. In 2009 he clicked knees with Atlanta's Zach Bogosian and, in the playoffs, Carolina's Erik Cole. "There are times," Cole says, "when I think he just doesn't care if a guy is in a vulnerable position."
"Matt Cooke has found his niche and [plays] his role very effectively," says Mike Keane, who played 16 NHL seasons, including one as Cooke's teammate on the Canucks in 2003--04. "He goes out and hits Ovechkin, hits guys from behind. If he hurts Ovechkin, who cares? The Washington Capitals won't win the Stanley Cup. He did his job. For Matt Cooke, that's perfect."