Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Matt Cooke Conundrum

Listen, fans are going to react to things.

Remember, "fan" is short for "fanatic." Dictionary.com defines "fanatic" as "a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal."

No reasonable person expects a diehard fan to not react to news that involves said fan's favorite team.

However, a lot of Minnesota Wild fans went far enough over the weekend to embarrass themselves. Over-the-top reactions are part of sports fandom, yes, but you'd expect a little more out of Minnesota hockey fans than a lot of the stuff we saw after the Wild announced the signing of Matt Cooke.

You'd think Cooke had actually gone Happy Gilmore on the bit at some point, taking off his skate and trying to stab someone with it. Actually, it appeared that at least some fans thought that happened at some point.

Yes, Cooke has a history. The Marc Savard hit, which was deemed legal but was sadly far from that, was a stain on the sport. An awful, unnecessary, completely dirty play that reeked of intent to injure. The hit on Ryan McDonagh wasn't necessarily a good one, either, but the Savard hit practically makes the McDonagh hit look clean in comparison.

The suspensions Cooke has received in his career are completely justified. He probably should have gotten more, given what happened with Savard.

But Cooke hasn't been suspended since the McDonagh shot. That means that in the last two years, Pierre-Marc Bouchard has missed more games due to suspension.

No, Bouchard is not a goon. Cooke really isn't anymore, either.

(I'm not even going to address the Erik Karlsson bit. No reason to bother. If any other player on the Penguins roster does what Cooke did on that play, nobody bats an eye. Even Mike Milbury, discussing the incident on NBC Sports Network that night, acknowledged Cooke's history was the only reason the conversation started. It was a hockey play. After 20-plus years of playing hockey, Cooke didn't just up and decide to sever someone's Achilles.)

Even taking the history of Matt Cooke into account, the reaction of Wild fans on Twitter was scathing, and it's still going on. Do a search for his name on Twitter and enjoy some of the dumb things Wild fans have been saying about this move.

Based on that vitriol, I have to think Wild tickets will be readily available this season, because there are a lot of people who don't seem to want to watch a team Matt Cooke plays for.

Perhaps "embarrassing" is a bit over the top as well, but I've always thought of Minnesota people as being smarter than to fall into traps like this.

Cooke hasn't been suspended in so long that he is no longer a repeat offender in the NHL's eyes. He hasn't taken a major penalty for an illegal check in a regular season game since that ill-fated blow to the head of McDonagh in 2011.

He's been nearly a model citizen in the time since as a Penguin. Good in the community, good in the room, and good in his role on the ice.

His start with Minnesota has been rocky because of the overreaction of many fans, but he's done and said all the right things so far. This is from Michael Russo, chronicling an interview with him Monday on KFAN.

In my opinion, the best part of the interview came at the end when I asked about his number, 24. That number holds a special place in the hearts of many Wild fans because it was the number worn by the late Derek Boogaard. It’s also the number Cooke has worn his entire nearly 1,000-game NHL career.

“The team told me they’re OK with me wearing it because Marty [Havlat] wore it after [Boogaard],” Cooke told me. “I don’t really feel comfortable putting it on without his mum and dad’s blessing. I’ve sent emails off to them. I want to let them know that by putting it on I’m absolutely not doing anything disrespectful. It’s been my only number in the NHL, but at the end of the day, I don’t want anyone’s feelings hurt. I don’t want anyone to think that I am being disrespectful and I want to make sure I take care of that before I even entertain the thought of putting it on.”

Cooke has indeed received that blessing.

It's a class move on his part to even ask. 24 is not a retired number for the Wild. Yes, Boogaard was a legend around these parts, but the Wild were probably never going to retire that number based on what he did while with the team. Typically, cult heroes don't get their jersey numbers in the rafters.

Instead, Cooke -- in a great show of respect to what Boogaard meant to this team -- asked the team first and then Boogaard's family for its blessing before he went ahead with No. 24.

A lesser man would have just taken the number he's always had in his pro career without thinking twice. Cooke understands the history of the franchise he's joining, and he's sensitive to the way Boogaard was lost.

If anything, it probably should diffuse some of the anger toward this signing. Of course, I'm convinced that there is a legion of Minnesota Wild fans not reading anything about Cooke at this point. All they can see is red, and they'll be angry about Cooke until he does something to justify their anger.

I've never hid from the fact that Cooke's agitating and often dirty style of play has worn on me. But I like to watch former UMD players play in the NHL, meaning I've seen plenty of Pittsburgh games the last two seasons (Matt Niskanen). Cooke isn't the same guy, something Yahoo! Sports' Greg Wyshynski made clear with Russo Monday (same link as above):

“Some national media and especially NBC and especially Mike Milbury have been living in the past on Matt Cooke. Like Matt Cooke is not that guy. Matt Cooke is no longer the guy who took off [Marc] Savard’s head, who hit McDonagh from behind, who was injurious and nearly played himself out of the National Hockey League because of that play. He had a lot of personal issues that year, he solved them or at least worked through them. Go on NHL.com and see how many major penalties this guy’s taken in the last two years (none). You’ll be stunned because it’s like nothing. He’s not that player anymore. He’s a serviceable guy. Does he play on the edge? Yeah, of course he plays on the edge much like [Cal] Clutterbuck did. But he’s no longer the headhunter, he’s no longer the guy that you don’t think should be in the National Hockey League because he can’t behave himself. He’s a good contributor to a team. In the last two seasons under this Brendan Shanahan Department of Player Safety stuff, I think he’s earned the right to at least get a chance without being crucified by fans and media in Minnesota without having seen him play all that much with Pittsburgh in the last two years.”

Couldn't say it better. He signed for less than Cal Clutterbuck -- the man he's basically replacing here -- got from the Islanders after the Nino Niederreiter trade. He's probably a more effective player in this role than Clutterbuck was and is. As long as the talk about Cooke's better path as a hockey player is truly not just talk, this should work out fine for the Wild.

Give it ten games, and Wild fans will warm up to this guy.

Now, Todd Bertuzzi, on the other hand ...

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