Whether you’ve been with the sport through thick and thin or just gained interest within the past few seasons, as an NHL fan, you’ve undoubtedly got an opinion on one Mr. Matt Cooke.
A “convicted” former cheap-shot specialist, the scrappy forward has never been a fan favorite for opposing teams, even after making some very serious attempts to change the way he plays. After several seasons with Vancouver (oh yeah, Wild fans really loved him then) and part of one with Washington, Cooke spent the next five with Pittsburgh. In his time with the Penguins, Cooke’s playing style transitioned from goon-play to a solid third-line, penalty-killing two-way forward that began to show a knack for scoring those clutch goals.
This transition into a responsible player played a huge role in his acquisition by the Minnesota Wild, as the team’s third-year head coach Mike Yeo had formerly coached Cooke with the Penguins and had been part of the coaching staff of the 2009 Stanley Cup championship team. Cooke has proven himself worthy of Yeo’s trust, playing a huge shutdown role on Minnesota’s third line with center Kyle Brodziak and rookie Justin Fontaine while scoring six goals and 14 assists for 20 points, an impressive plus-10 rating and just 32 penalty minutes in 51 games this season. He’s even been able to win over a good portion of the fan base–no small feat considering his part in the Wild’s bitter rivalry with the Canucks early in the history of the franchise.
However, it appears many around the league will not let him forget his past. Cue last season’s “SkateGate” incident. On February 13th, 2013, the Penguins were playing the Ottawa Senators when the league’s reining Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson had his Achilles tendon accidentally sliced by Cooke along the boards. The play instantly had many around the league calling for Cooke’s head, saying the former goon had intentionally stepped on Karlsson’s leg. That is a blatant lie.
Halfway through this season, it was thought the incident had been put in the past where it belongs. Instead, the Senators brass have come together to present their forensic findings of the incident at the league’s headquarters to prove Cooke is guilty of intent to injure. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is said to be the man leading the charge here. At the time of the incident, Melnyk made his thoughts quite plain, saying, “To have him (Karlsson) taken out by a goon is unconscionable. It’s something that never should have happened. This player (Cooke) should never be playing in this league. It’s a league for elite players”.
Seriously, how much time do these people have on their hands? Their time would be much better spent finding a way to get their team back into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt instead of focusing on what never was.
Cooke knows there’s only so much he can do and understandably wishes Melnyk would let it go.
“I can’t control it. I learned a long time ago, all I can control is my actions and my words. I try to do that to the best that I can. Other people are going to have judgments. They’re entitled to their own opinions. I can’t tell this guy how to spend his money. He’s entitled to do what he wants.”
People refuse to look beyond the past. Matt Cooke, like all of us, is human–he has and is going to make mistakes. He may not have been the most respectable player in the past, but he’s come a long way in his efforts to turn his image around. Fans and brass need to take the time to see who this guy really is. To see the man who wouldn’t take his traditional No. 24 before having the blessing of Derek Boogaard’s family. The man who runs the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope. The man who gives anything and everything he can of himself to help the team.
And, tonight, he’ll continue to be the best he can be as the Wild fight another tough Central division battle in the race for a playoff spot.
“The most important thing tonight is two points,” said Cooke. “We need to put space between us and the teams behind us. This is a huge game. It’s a team in our division and behind us. We have to have the focus to go out and win the game. That’s the most important thing.”
If only Ottawa had the same mindset.