Matt Cooke does not need to be suspended by the National Hockey League; he needs to be expelled from it.
The 14th year pro and Pittsburgh Penguins forward was up to his old reckless tricks on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals when, just 1:32 into the second period, he lined up Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid at the numbers and launched him into the boards face first. Watch the video for yourself. It wasn’t clean and it didn’t have to happen. Cooke could have altered his path or simply finished his check with less force. Instead, his subsequent denials and confusion over why he received a major penalty in the first place notwithstanding, he attempted to take McQuaid out.
McQuaid fortunately escaped mostly unscathed, save for almost 10 minutes away from the ice getting examined in the quiet room because of his concussion history, while Cooke received 15 penalty minutes and no further discipline from the league. He could and perhaps should have been suspended for as much as the remainder of the round but because McQuaid returned to the game and since Cooke hasn’t been docked time in over two years, he essentially received the hockey equivalent of “no harm, no foul” and early parole for good behavior.
It should be noted, in case you've forgotten, that it wasn't the pair's first rodeo.
Maybe this will just be an impassioned rant from a Bruins fan, but I’d like to think it is also from someone who loves hockey. It has little to do with Saturday’s singular event and everything to do with one man’s disruptive, tragic body of work.
Hockey is a violent sport when played correctly and within the rules of the game. Skill and finesse aside, there’s an aggressive, physical element that makes it downright dangerous on countless occasions every single night.
The game doesn’t need guys like Cooke, Raffi Torres, or any other pugilist in recent memory running around carelessly and with intent to injure. Consider the fact that Cooke, laughably a Masterton Trophy nominee last season, has been suspended five times in his career – three for direct hits to the head – for a total of 27 games, and that the worst bodily harm he’s inflicted has not even resulted in missed time.
All-Star centerman Marc Savard took a vicious elbow to the head from Cooke on March 7, 2010 that essentially ended his career. The only time he’s ever heard from now is on Twitter. For all we know, he’s spending the rest of his time in dark rooms, away from loud noise and bright light, dealing with post-concussion symptoms that could linger for the rest of his life.
Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson had his Achilles tendon severed by Cooke with his skate blade just a few months ago on February 13, 2013. Following the incident, for which Cooke again avoided corrective action as this one was largely perceived to be an accident, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said, “To have [Karlsson] taken out by a goon is unconscionable. It’s something that never should have happened. [Cooke] should never be playing in this league. It’s a league for elite players.”
Cooke’s hit on McQuaid prompted an incredible reaction with fans calling for the forward’s head, save for those who root for the Penguins. Had the check been delivered by another player, in all likelihood there would have been some momentary anguish by Bruins supporters before quickly moving on and basking in an impressive victory.
However, Cooke has earned his reputation and he’s considered Enemy Number One in several NHL circles, most certainly Boston. There’s a reason why NBC had video of a three-year-old hit on Savard queued up and ready to air. There was an expectation that something could or would occur involving Cooke. Maybe the network would have shown it regardless but, odds are, if he plays a clean game, that injury receives no more than a passing mention. After all, when a guy has a low-light reel, there’s reason to expect the worst.
Cooke, to echo Melnyk, doesn’t belong in the game. There’s no room for a guy – someone claiming to be reformed, mind you – running around taking opponents’ careers, livelihood and maybe even their lives into his own hands for the purpose of getting an edge for his team. It’s dirty, it’s foul, it’s inexcusable, and no suspension, not even for a full season, would suffice.
There are a breathtaking number of hypocrites in Pittsburgh from owner Mario Lemieux on down, people who claim hits like the ones Cooke provides don’t belong in the game, while simultaneously defending and supporting their player against most of the allegations that come his way. How about some consistency? How would Lemieux feel if another team had a player who inflicted serious injury upon Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or any of his other Miami Heat-like superstars?
Now, obviously, Cooke’s outright removal from the NHL would never happen for a number of reasons.
Among them, it opens the door to a whole other set of issues for the league since the Players Association would be up in arms and legal fees for the inevitable lawsuits would be substantial. The expulsion wouldn’t stand. Also, the NHL enjoys having its villains. Every sport prefers to advertise a blend of good and evil. The contrast is positive for business. But there’s a difference between villains like Brad Marchand who agitate and whom opposing teams love to hate but aren’t generally dirty, compared to someone like Cooke who’s a magnet for self-imposed controversy.
The simplest way to get rid of Cooke and others like him is to gradually phase them out into retirement. They’re already few and far between because the game has evolved in such a way that suspensions and considerable penalties are becoming more commonplace at the lower levels. Hits from behind or hazardous head shots are resulting in significant suspension for the sake of player safety and making the rules known. Remember when Dougie Hamilton was booted for 10 games in juniors?
Players are learning a new brand of hockey at a younger age that differs drastically from the days when it seemed like anything went. We’ve already seen the one-trick pony fighters virtually eliminated from the game and soon too will be the cheap-shot artists. It’ll just take time.
As for Cooke, enough’s enough. Is the league waiting for the next major incident? The one after that? How many strikes does a guy get? How many more people have to get hurt?
Make a statement, NHL, and do it with the same determined strength with which Matt Cooke delivers each of his devastating blows.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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