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Wife’s health scare made Penguins’ Matt Cooke a changed man

Contrary to popular belief, Matt Cooke(notes) is not a monster.

He helps run the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope, a fundraising charity that was founded after his sister-in-law had a daughter born without a heartbeat. His first phone call after a Pittsburgh Penguins home game is to his family: wife Michelle and three children. The tender scenes between Cooke and his family on "HBO 24/7" echoed their affection in real life.

How that warm persona off the ice squares with the injurious cheap-shot artist on the ice has always been difficult to comprehend. But according to a revealing story by Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cooke's dedication to his family may have helped change his game for the Penguins -- gaining perspective while nearly losing his wife.

According to Rossi, Cooke's wife Michelle was hospitalized for 10 days in January, undergoing "four surgical procedures to remove a mass three-quarters inch in diameter that clogged her left kidney's exit valve and infected her lungs and diaphragm."

Along with his concern for his wife's wellbeing, Cooke had to shoulder major changes in his daily routine as she recovered during the NHL season. From the Tribune-Review:

Game-day naps were jettisoned for tending to Reece, 10, and Jackson, 7. (Gabby, 18, was attending high school near Bellville, Ontario.) Practices were a brief respite from handling the duties of father and mother while Michelle recovered.

Work never came home with Cooke, who didn't tell his wife he had been suspended four games for a Feb. 8 check from behind on [Fedor] Tyutin. He did not disclose that Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, on several occasions, tapped Cooke on the shoulder during a game and asked, "Are you with us, Matt?"

Bylsma said he has asked Cooke and other Penguins that question before, but he conceded the circumstances with Cooke were different. "We knew what he was dealing with," Bylsma said. "He never would use it as an excuse for anything."

Nor did Cooke use it as excuse for his reckless play last season. But he has used it for inspiration for how to change his behavior on the ice.

As we covered on Monday, Cooke now claims he's changed his "approach to the game" in an effort to curb his suspension-worthy offenses and injurious play. Said Cooke: "It's a mentality, it's how I'm going to approach the game ... And the team has worked hard in supporting me to accomplish these minor tweaks in my game.''

Via Rossi, it appears last season's personal strife has served as his inspiration, beginning around the time when Cooke was suspended for a head shot on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh(notes):

"I'm sure it all happens for a reason," he said. "It all affects you in one way or another. I can't pinpoint and say when (Michelle) was in the hospital and immediately after hitting (McDonagh) that there was this moment, but ...

"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that."

This story shouldn't be seen as a way for Cooke to cull sympathy or explain away his sins of the past. Rather, it should be seen within the context of his future in the NHL.

Matt Cooke's been telling anyone who'll listen he's going to be a changed man. At the very least, this personal crisis, and the epiphany he claims is connected to it, should elevate those vows of reform to something greater than perfunctory promises.

Maybe Matt Cooke can change. Question is, what kind of player will he become if he does?

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