The troubling thing about Matt Cooke is not that he didn’t change. It’s that he did. He worked hard to clean up his act. He made significant progress.
He feared if he screwed up again, the NHL would hit him hard. He knew his rehabilitation would never end. “It’s a work in progress,” he once said. “It never stops. … It’s not like I can just go back.”
Yet here he is back again – back to throwing a dirty hit, back to injuring an opponent, back to hurting his own team. The Minnesota Wild forward received a seven-game suspension for kneeing Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on Monday night in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series.
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I am all for stiffer suspensions. I have been for a long time. But they have to be for the right reasons, and both the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have to get on board and give the department of player safety the mandate.
It’s too easy to say seven games was or wasn’t enough based on some arbitrary, personal standard of justice for Cooke, who has received supplemental discipline 10 times in his 15-season NHL career – four fines and six suspensions – and just sidelined Barrie for 4-to-6 weeks with an MCL injury.
We need to take a deeper look and ask real questions. Supplemental discipline is not supposed to be about satisfaction. It’s supposed to be about changing behavior, and it seemed to be working in Cooke’s case.
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So why did Cooke slip up? Because it was a matter of time for him? Because he got complacent? Will this seven-game suspension scare him straight again, or will it ease his fear of punishment and lead to yet another incident?
This is a relatively stiff suspension for several reasons:
— A player with no history of supplemental discipline who committed the same act and caused the same injury probably would have received three or four games.
— It is the second-longest suspension for kneeing in NHL history and the longest in more than 16 years. Defenseman Bryan Marchment, who was notorious for kneeing, received an eight-gamer in February 1998. The suspension was his second for kneeing that season.
— Though the NHL comes down harder on repeat offenders, it comes down hardest on those who repeat specific acts. Cooke’s biggest problem has been head shots. He does have a history of kneeing, including borderline incidents recently, so this is part of a pattern. But he has never been suspended for kneeing before.
— This is the playoffs. There is no magic formula for weighing playoff games versus regular-season games, but the dynamic is different. Cooke is not missing seven games out of an 82-game regular season. He started his suspension with the Wild trailing the Avs in the series, 2-1.
— Finally, Cooke had not been fined or suspended since March 2011.
Cooke was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins then. He threw an elbow into the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh – at a time when concussion awareness was increasing, his owner had been vocal about violence in the game and general managers were supporting stiff suspensions for repeat offenders.
Colin Campbell, the NHL disciplinarian at the time, suspended Cooke for the Penguins’ final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins were already without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin because of injuries, and now they were without a key component of the league’s top penalty-killing unit. They lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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The league made it clear to Cooke that his next punishment would be more severe, and the Penguins made it clear he was on thin ice with them, too. He flew to New York to meet with Campbell’s successor, Brendan Shanahan, and kept in touch with him early in the 2011-12 season. Shanahan sent him videos. The Penguins showed him videos, too.
Cooke relearned his approach to the game – “out of necessity and circumstance,” as Penguins coach Dan Bylsma once said. He relearned how to evaluate plays so he could avoid dangerous situations. He stopped looking for kill shots. He was less reckless.
From 2008-09 through 2010-11, Cooke had racked up 336 penalty minutes in 222 regular-season games, an average of 1.51 penalty minutes per game. He had two non-fighting majors and seven misconducts. (He also had one misconduct in the playoffs.)
From 2011-12 through 2013-14, Cooke cut that to 134 penalty minutes in 212 regular-season games, an average of 0.63 penalty minutes per game. He had no majors and two misconducts. (He did have a checking-from-behind major and two misconducts in the playoffs, however).
Bottom line: He felt he couldn’t afford to make a mistake. He was diligent. And it paid off. The Wild felt he was worth the risk last summer when they signed him to a three-year, $7.5 million contract in free agency.
“It’s always refreshed in your mind and reinstalling that new approach,” Cooke said almost exactly two years ago. “I played so long, my whole life, the other way that I think it’s going to be a constant thing. I’m fine with that. I’m up for that challenge.”
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So what happened Monday night? Why did Cooke skate straight at Barrie, stick out his left knee and then extend his left leg, when he had plenty of time to make a better decision? Because he’s inherently a bad guy or dirty player and always will be? Because time wore on and he stopped refreshing and reinstalling the new approach in his mind as much? Because he was focused on head shots and not kneeing and just made a mistake? Because the league let him get away with other kneeing incidents – like his hit on the Dallas Stars’ Valeri Nichushkin on March 8 – and lost a chance to get his attention and prevent this?
And what will happen now that new disciplinarian Stephane Quintal has ruled? Will Cooke appeal to commissioner Gary Bettman and then perhaps the neutral discipline arbitrator? Will he accept his punishment and say all the right things – that he didn’t mean it, that it won’t happen again? Will this seven-game suspension have the effect it is supposed to have?
I’m afraid to find out. I’ll go back to what I wrote almost exactly two years ago, when I called Cooke “the prime example of how the supplemental discipline system has worked and can work going forward.” Sigh.
“It takes stiff punishments and education together. The league has to get the players' attention, and the players have to pay attention.
“The NHL needs to get to the point where the risk of an illegal play clearly outweighs the potential reward – where it's just not worth crossing the line, even though the fans are roaring for blood and the coaches want checks finished and the emotion is high and the Stanley Cup is at stake. The league has to scare ’em straight and then help them toe the fine line. The players have to take responsibility and make the effort to change.
“And we have to realize it's a work in progress. It's always a work in progress. It doesn't stop.”
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