It’s easy to manufacture a story line out of any sporting event, but it’s often the ones that are created that fail to live up to the hype.
The same goes for rivalries, organic antagonisms for one another that are at their best when they rise from a specific incident or series of tug-of-wars that breed dislike, and at their most laissez-faire when they’re a product of marketing or something that is bred from “First Take.” Contempt is conceived, not assembled.
When it comes to the Bruins and Penguins, playing their first Eastern Conference final against each other since “Encino Man” was in theaters, the rivalry certainly isn’t on par with the historic dislike Boston has for Montreal, or the instant dislike that was born from the ashes in Vancouver two years ago, but the story lines are natural, if not somewhat force-fed. Jarome Iginla’s Decision. The history behind Cam Neely-Ulf Samuelsson. Jaromir Jagr returning to his original NHL haunt. Matt Cooke.
It’s a necessary refrain to remind you that Marc Savard will watch the Bruins and Penguins across the land at home, on TV instead of centering one of his former team’s top lines and pivoting the Boston power play, where his absence the last three years has been most notable. It was, of course, Cooke’s cheap, yet not suspendable, shot on Savard in 2010 that was the beginning of what has most likely become the end of Savard’s career. Cooke’s public relations team, also known as the Pittsburgh hockey media, will tell you that is all in the past. Cooke is a changed man, one who only sliced the Achilles of Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson when he stepped on the left leg of the Senators defenseman last February.
Incidental, Cooke’s team of protectors will tell you.
"I don't buy any of that garbage," Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said in the wake of the incident. "Five times? No, we're No. 6? How about seven and eight? At what point do you say, 'You know what? Maybe he's not changed.' You do this enough times, don't try to convince me or anybody else. People are way too intelligent. The guy gets suspended five times. That's how many times he's been suspended, never mind how many times he's not been suspended.
"I'm just shocked that that organization employs that type of individual."
Pittsburgh Tribune Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic told Melnyk and the Senators to “shut up” following that statement for saying naughty things about dear old Cookie. But still, the criticisms came. In advance of the teams’ next meeting, NBC’s Mike Milbury called the Penguins forward a “skunk,” and NHL circles turned on their heads over such an egregious act. Must protect Cooke at all costs.
"I've said many times [the Karlsson hit] was a freak accident," Cooke said earlier this month. "I didn't think I owed anyone any accountability for something I didn't intentionally do.
"I hit Marc Savard intentionally. That's a big difference. I certainly didn't intend for the results to be what they were, but I intended to hit him.”
Results are what we pay for though, aren’t they? If intentions can be tried, we’d all be guilty. It’s what we do and how we carry out our instincts that define our reputations, for better or worse. NHL fans are implored to understand that Cooke has changed his ways, which is true to a great degree. But it’s impossible to forget the Savard incident and what it has meant for the player, the human. It’s impossible to witness a play like Cooke-Karlsson from this season and assume everything is hunky-dory with someone who boasts such a checkered past.
When the Bruins see Cooke, they see blood. When Pittsburgh sees Cooke, it sees gumdrops. He was even the recipient of the Edward J. DeBartolo “Community Service” Award last season, which, um, didn’t sit too well with Jack Edwards.
Iginla will receive most of the media focus during this Super Bowl-like wait until Saturday’s Game 1, mostly because his spurning of Boston to play in Pittsburgh is most fresh in our memories. There is no Penguins player that Savard’s teammates would have more satisfaction in denying a trip to the Stanley Cup final than Cooke.
"My wife and I do a great job of conveying to our kids what's going on," Cooke told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "People see something that happens on the ice and react to it. It has nothing to do with who I am as a person, as a dad and as someone who tries to do good work in the community. It's interesting to me that we're able to express that to kids 9 and 12 and they get it better than grown people on the outside."
Maybe. And just maybe Cooke truly is a changed man.
Talk about your manufactured story lines.