Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Matt Cooke Efforts to Become Hockey Player

Contrary to general belief, Matt Cooke can play hockey at a high level. He's been a consistent offensive contributor in his career, and has chipped in some key goals, including in the playoffs.

His behavior on the ice, though, is more often that of a petulant twit, one who can't stand the thought of someone on the other team displaying a high skill level. One who just can't play the game clean ... can't avoid crossing the line and making a headline.

A recent profile of Cooke by Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review doesn't talk about Cooke refusing to change his style of play. It doesn't reference Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma playing more of the part of "enabler" than anything else.

Instead, Rossi got Cooke to open up about health struggles his wife, Michelle, was going through for a good chunk of last season.
However, from Jan. 2 through March 20, the day doctors cleared Michelle to again attend a Penguins game, Cooke never had a chance to take a breath. His wife, who had 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, couldn't take a deep one.

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.

From that experience, Cooke has decided to do what he can to turn over the proverbial new leaf (not Leafs, just leaf).

Cooke said he has reviewed 20 hours of hits — his own and those by others such as Rangers forward Ryan Callahan — so he could learn how to deliver a legal check.

Cooke said his new approach to hitting would have changed the way he approached McDonagh. He could have gone after the puck — McDonagh was in the process of dumping the puck from the neutral zone into the offensive zone — with his stick blade. Cooke said if he "had to hit (McDonagh), I'd hit his hands with my body.

"It wasn't intentional," he said, "but there is no excuse."

Cooke, unlike after previous controversial hits, asked Penguins general manager Ray Shero if he could attend a discipline hearing the next day in Toronto. He didn't try to excuse his behavior before NHL brass, Shero said.

Cooke even sent an apologetic text to McDonagh.

"Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit," Michelle said. "That was the difference I noticed. This (hit) bothered him."

She said her health scare and the brief change in his in-season dynamic with the kids provided her husband "perspective."

That perspective, Cooke said, is the reason to believe he is a changed man, that he can play hockey the right way.

He is aware the proof will be in his play. He knows he cannot slip up.

He maintains this Matt Cooke is different.

"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."

I'm more than willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I'm just one guy who loves hockey and follows it religiously, and I have never respected how Matt Cooke plays the game. It isn't a recent development. It isn't something that started with the hit on Marc Savard. Or the unpunished knee-on-knee hit on Alex Ovechkin.

It started with his idiotic behavior in Vancouver. He's been truculent throughout his career, but not the kind of truculent I like. It's that over-the-line truculent that only his teammates and fans can appreciate. No one else wants anything to do with it.

If Cooke is capable of erasing the dirty hits from his M.O., he has plenty he can contribute to the game. He is unquestionably tough, willing to get his hands dirty and work hard, and he can skate.

But he has to stop the dirty hits -- and it's not just a coincidence or a series of unfortunate events -- before anyone is going to listen to what he has to say. For now, these words ring hollow with non-Penguin fans worldwide, and even with some Penguin fans.

The onus is on Cooke to prove his words are more than words, by turning his words into actions. It's not going to be as easy as it sounds, but it's a responsibility he must take seriously, because his future as a hockey player might rely on his ability to change a long track record of bad behavior.

(Stick tap: Puck Daddy)

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