PITTSBURGH — Matt Cooke, left wing, predator.
Now 34 years old, and an unrestricted free agent as of July 5, that’s the career line for Cooke. He says he is reformed, that he wants to play the game the right way, and for all I know he’s great to stray dogs and cats and spends his idle hours away from the rink waiting at busy intersections in hopes of escorting old ladies across the street.
But Cooke is what he is when it comes to hockey, which is a career predator/batterer. He proved it once again here Saturday night against the Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup’s Eastern Conference finals. He lined up towering defenseman Adam McQuaid on the rear wall. While McQuaid was playing the puck as he faced the glass, Cooke drilled him right between the numbers with 1:32 gone in the second period.
McQuaid’s face smashed into the glass and he crumpled up, falling to the ice in the way we witnessed Patrice Bergeron drop in October 2007 when he was plastered by then-Flyer defenseman Randy Jones. Luckily for McQuaid, it wasn’t nearly as devastating. After getting back on his feet, he made his way to the Boston dressing room, got checked out, and was back and available for duty after some nine minutes ticked off the playing clock.
“You’re aware when he’s out there,’’ McQuaid said the following day. “But I think that’s true of everyone — you try to know who’s out there for the other team, the [game] situation, all that.’’
The Bruins know Cooke isn’t just another guy. He’s the guy who ostensibly ended the career of their top center, Marc Savard, in mid-season 2009-10 with the vicious blindside shot he targeted at Savard’s head while the Bruin attempted to make a play high in the offensive zone. Savard has played only 32 games ever since and is effectively retired, living in Ontario, appreciative that he is able to spend quality time with his kids and enjoy decent physical and mental health.
Cooke was not penalized for the hit on Savard. Worse, the league opted not to subject him to supplemental discipline. He skated. On a hit that ended a career. And finally, after enough howling criticism in the media, the Lords of the Boards ever so slowly came around and decided that players’ heads are not fair game. Bad news for Cooke because, well, dealing those type of hits made up a big part of his game.
So he changed. He masked over his middle name “Hannibal’’ the last couple of years and fashioned a fairly reformed, yet still aggressive game that enabled him to keep a spot in a very talented Pittsburgh lineup. To their credit, the Penguins front office told him to change his ways or they would change his address.
So, yeah, he changed.
Until Saturday night. Until he sensed McQuaid’s vulnerability and, once more, opted for the hunt. Predators do not change. They retreat, recalculate, eventually re-emerge.
Again, Cooke is a free agent in just about a month, and teams across the Original 30 will be looking for players who separate themselves from the fray. Cooke’s mark of distinction always has been the mark he leaves on others. In a series that started off on the wrong foot for the Penguins, he’ll have the Game 1 tape to prove to any interested GM that he still is, and always will be, the unpredictable X factor able to eliminate or hurt any player in any lineup.
Saddest of all, the league over the weekend retreated in lockstep with Cooke. The office of Player Safety, headed by ex-power forward Brendan Shanahan, opted not to add to Cooke’s penance. He was tossed out of Saturday’s game, tagged with a 5-minute penalty for checking from behind, and the 10-minute game misconduct that sent him to the showers. But he was back at practice Sunday, excusing his behavior of the night before (insert my shocked face here) and he was back in stalking mode Monday night for Game 2 at Consol Energy Center.
In his explanation, Cooke noted that McQuaid’s partner, rookie Torey Krug, ran interference on him in the moments leading to the smack on McQuaid. Such interference is no longer legal. How delicious that Cooke made note of Krug’s move, as if it factored in his course of action and decision making. Such nonsense.
“He looks me right in the eyes,’’ Cooke added, further trying to blame McQuaid, who, by that alleged turn of the head, and showing of eyes, had to be turned enough to make him fair prey. More nonsense.
“I think at the last minute he goes to make a reverse with the puck,’’ Cooke further explained. “But I’ve committed to hit him and I don’t drive him through the boards. I made contact and think it’s a penalty but I don’t think it’s an ejection or a suspension, but that’s my opinion.’’
Now that’s true. It’s all opinion. But it’s surrounded by the fact, not opinion, that Cooke continues to be the predator he is, that the league continues to excuse and therefore facilitate his behavior.
The Penguins have a predator on their hands, pay him quite well ($1.25 million this season) to do what he does, and the league allows it.
The game’s culture is changing. Mainly because of Cooke, and resultant bellyaching by the media, it changed its rules and it entrusted Shanahan with the job previously held by bumbling league vice president Colin Campbell. All that has been for the better. It is moving in the right direction.
But the right thing over the weekend, the true indication of a culture fixed, would have been to tell Cooke, a lifelong disabler, that what he did no longer has a place in the game. He needed to be suspended, even though he did nothing — actually, he was minus-2 — in the Penguins’ 6-1 loss in Game 2 Monday night.
There is no need for the NHL to suffer such fools. There is no need for players’ careers to be jeopardized at the whim and primal, uncontrollable urges of player-predators. Until the league finally understands that, it will remain the sport that continues to fail its workers, its owners, its broadcast partners, its sponsors, its fans, and, most importantly, itself.