Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
Throughout the NHL’s latest attempt to crack down on illegal hits, perhaps no player has been more of a poster boy for what’s wrong with the game than Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. He has earned scorn from all corners of the hockey world, including from some of the players that he plays against. He plays the game aggressively, and often straddles the line between right and wrong while he’s on the ice.
Sunday afternoon saw yet another example of just why Cooke is so universally despised, as he elbowed New York’s Ryan McDonagh in the head near center ice, and was given a game misconduct for his total lack of discretion. Almost immediately the internet was ablaze with those calling on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and keeper of the NHL’s Wheel of Justice Colin Campbell to suspend Cooke for a long period of time.
After all of the debating, punditry, and righteous indignation had subsided on Monday afternoon, Cooke was handed a suspension for the rest of the regular season, and also was banned for the first round of the playoffs. In total, the suspension will keep him out of Pittsburgh’s lineup for somewhere between 14 and 17 games. The penalty represents the NHL’s stiffest stand against a violator of Rule 48, which any NHL fan at this point can tell you is the rule that bans lateral or blindside hits to the head.
More so than in recent situations (most notably the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty), the majority of hockey observers supported the NHL’s decision to suspend Cooke for such a long period of time. As a repeat offender, and based in large part on his reputation for committing these types of infractions, the NHL throwing the book at him was met with more applause than “Colie” is used to hearing. There were some who thought that the ban was too easy or too rough, but for the most part the consensus is that the league got this one right.
Another interesting element in the Cooke ban was the reaction of the affected team. During this crackdown, teams have often cried foul when their player received their punishment, saying that it was not appropriate given the circumstances of the play. One notable play that received that type of scorn was the one in which New York’s Trevor Gillies broadsided Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck with an elbow to the head. Isles GM Garth Snow spoke out strongly against the 10 game suspension that was eventually handed down, but Penguins GM Ray Shero chose not to go that route.
Instead, Shero issued a short statement saying that the team supported the NHL’s decision, saying:
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”
Reaction to this statement was about as positive as it was to the punishment Cooke received. Plenty of observers applauded Shero for his willingness to call out one of his own players in a public way, and the message that was sent seemed to be that the team would no longer condone Cooke’s actions if they were to continue in such a violent and inappropriate manner.
Before we get to whether or not the suspension was fair, it seems like a good idea to dissect exactly what Shero did in this situation. Was this a legitimate gesture of remorse by the Penguins organization when it comes to the headshot issue? Was it a case of “too little, too late” for the team that just this past summer signed Cooke to a three year contract extension, and would that supposed hypocrisy overshadow any epiphany that may be hinted at here?
The simple answer to this question is that yes, the Penguins bear a large chunk of the responsibility for employing Cooke. They knew full well before signing him to his extension that he was a player that flirted with the dark side, so to speak, and yet they inked him anyway because his skill set is unique in this league. He may be known mostly as a buffoon who is constantly throwing elbows and irritating people, but the reality is that he is also a forward who can score occasionally and can be put onto the ice for more ice time without worry about him being an offensive liability.
Even still, that does not exonerate the Penguins from the responsibility that is theirs in this situation. No matter how many times Shero and Mario Lemieux say they are against the type of play that Cooke has become known for, the fact is that they knowingly are employing one of the players that the league is trying to rid itself of.
That being said, the fact is that Shero’s statement is still a step in the right direction for the discourse on this topic. No, it isn’t worthy of a Nobel Prize or anything extravagant like that, but at the very least it represents a possible paradigm shift that could see teams discontinuing their condoning of these type of acts.
In addition, the notion that Shero is just trying to make himself and the organization look good is hogwash. According to various reporters that spoke out today on the punishment, Shero has been leading the charge behind closed doors for the league to potentially ban all shots to the head. Whether that has more to do with the fact that the team’s biggest superstar is currently riding the pine with a head injury or a real sea change, the fact remains that Shero isn’t just some fly by night advocate of stiffer punishments for this type of stuff. It is nice to see that an executive who has cast stones at other players is willing to do so to a member of his own team, and that’s the proper context in which to look at it.
It is very easy to question the team’s motives and suggest that there’s some hypocrisy going on, but instead of focusing on that negative it seems a lot more logical to keep eyes on the positive aspect of the statement.
Going back to the hit itself, the question becomes whether or not the punishment was fair. Even though majority opinion is on the league’s side, did they really send an appropriate message with their suspension of Cooke? Were they too hard on a player for a hit that they wouldn’t have come down as hard on if the player’s name weren’t synonymous with what they were trying to eliminate from the game? Did they not go far enough?
Looking at the suspension from the viewpoint of Cooke as a repeat offender, 10 games seems appropriate. This isn’t his first time at the rodeo, as he was also suspended this season for his boarding infraction against Fedor Tyutin. He was suspended for four games for that hit, but this hit had the added component of being a headshot, and one that was in direct violation of Rule 48. Since this is the type of hit that the league is actively trying to remove from the game, it would make sense for them to come down hard on this one.
Looking at Cooke’s repeat offender status and the nature of the hit, it’s easy to see why the NHL did what they did. What isn’t really covered by the 10 regular season games was the intent behind the hit. Cooke clearly intended to elbow McDonagh in the head, and it can be logically assumed that he tried to hurt him. Intent to injure is a term that gets thrown around way too much when it comes to discussing these types of incidents, but in this one, it is definitely appropriate.
For all the talk about what a good guy Cooke is, and for all the people who insist that he shouldn’t be lumped in with the Gillies of the world because of his ability to actually produce for the Penguins on offense, the reality is that he needed a wake-up call. This incident, which occurred on national TV with a big audience watching, may have finally been the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to the NHL appropriately disciplining violators of their headshot rules. Of course, it would be silly for anyone to assume that the league is finally going to mend their ways after such a long time, but this could actually represent a step in the right direction.
The real test for the league is going to come when the next player, whether it be a superstar or a scrub, decides that he’s had enough and decides to violate Rule 48 in an attempt to injure another player. Will the league be willing to stand by their ruling in the Cooke case and throw the book at the guy, or will they instead retreat from it and bury their heads in the sand once again? Only time will tell, but for the benefit of the league, we can all hope that this is finally the watershed moment of clarity that we’ve all been waiting for.
But we still probably shouldn’t hold our breath.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.