- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The only check in question on this off day is at lunch. Cooke is at an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh's Strip District with John Lawrence and his family. Lawrence is 19. When he was 16, he suffered extensive brain and spinal injuries in a car accident and remained in a coma for 10 months. When Cooke heard about Lawrence through his foundation last fall—Matt and his wife, Michelle, started the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope five years ago—he invited Lawrence's family to the opener in Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center in October and took him to practice the following day. While Cooke was being trashed in the wake of the Ovechkin and Tyutin hits, Lawrence's father called a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who previously had written about his son—John hunts deer with a crossbow from his wheelchair—to say the city should know the other side of Matt Cooke. "John admired Matt's bravery and strength and turned to that when his rehab was rough," said his father, who is also named John. "Everybody was teasing John that his favorite guy was a dirty player, a goon, but Matt's just a guy who fights for his position on the team. A battler."
Cooke had to battle to reach the NHL. At 16, he played Tier II hockey for the Wellington Dukes in eastern Ontario in a rink affectionately known as the DukeDome, essentially a broom closet with a Zamboni. The ice surface was 180 feet by 80 feet, 20 feet shorter and five feet narrower than an NHL rink, and the crowd was so close to the ice, an observant winger could tell who in the Whiskey Corner section had had a tonsillectomy. If you played for the Dukes in that crazy old barn, you finished your checks. Nonnegotiable.
He was only a middling junior prospect, Windsor's 10th-round choice in the Ontario Hockey League's 1995 draft. "The first thing Paul Gillis, who became my coach that first year, said to me was, 'You're playing the same way in the OHL that I played in the NHL; keep your elbows down,'" Cooke recalls. His elbows came down—shifting his focus from hitting to playing—and his stats went up. Cooke began his major junior career as a so-called energy player, but the speed and surprisingly sweet hands he showed in Windsor translated to 45 goals in his second season and to an NHL opportunity when the Canucks selected him 144th overall in 1997.
When Cooke arrived in Vancouver in 1998, the left flank was stocked with Markus Naslund and Mark Messier. He did not need a memo to know he wouldn't be a first-liner. "So I took the approach that every day I wanted [coach] Mike Keenan to go, 'Number 46? Oh, yeah, that's that Cooke kid. He ran around and hit everything,' " he recalls. "I didn't want him to go, 'Number 46? Who the hell's that?'"
Cooke played with abundant energy and menace in his early years in Vancouver, but he did not "take ownership" of his game. In the sometimes indecipherable NHL code, the phrase essentially means that he was reluctant to fight. (He did fight Avalanche forward Steve Moore in March 2004 before teammate Todd Bertuzzi's infamous assault on Moore in the same game.) In some ways his hesitance to drop his gloves explains the widespread disdain around the NHL for Cooke almost as much as his record of borderline hits. Cooke was a practitioner not of old-time hockey but of new-era hockey, a seminal figure in the age of the Super Pest, in which fighting your own battles was less of an obligation.
Cooke has had 20 NHL fights, according to hockeyfights.com, but only 10 came in his 566 games with the Canucks from 1998 to 2008. He maintains that part of the reason was coach Marc Crawford's theory that his effectiveness as an agitator would erode if he gave opponents the satisfaction of fighting. (Crawford, now the Stars coach, says he does not recall giving Cooke those instructions.) "So many days I'd say, This guy [is] a factor; Cooke helped us win," says May, the ex--Canucks tough guy. "And other days I'd be icing my knuckles or my temple and thinking, I wouldn't have been in that fight at all except for that ass----."
Cooke has had 10 bouts in just 217 games with Pittsburgh, which qualifies as accountability and maturity in the NHL. Shero reminded him before his recent disciplinary hearing to accept ungrudgingly Campbell's ruling on the Tyutin check.
"Is he a dirty player? Yeah, he's a dirty player. [Former defenseman] Ulf Samuelsson was a dirty player. But there's value in that. Is there value in injuring players and getting suspended? No. But there are football players in the Hall of Fame who were dirty. There are brushback pitchers in the Hall of Fame."
After a year in which he forced a rule change and endured the longest suspension of his career, Cooke considers himself duly brushed back. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has actually met with the winger this season to ask why he had turned down the opportunity for more heavy hits, which Cooke explained as a hangover from Rule 48—the Cooke Rule. He was certainly prepared for the run that Capitals winger Matt Bradley took at him on Feb. 21 in Pittsburgh's first meeting with Washington after his knee-on-knee hit of Ovechkin. As Bradley noted to reporters after the game, "You can't go hit our best player with a dirty hit without us retaliating."
"The biggest thing for me is that on the ice, there's a persona," Cooke says. "It's what it is because that's what's made me successful. But that has nothing to do with who I am."