Canucks and Beyond

Cooke's Evolution

03/22/2011 at 5:23pm EDT

A lot of the criticism of Mario Lemieux and his stand against violence on the ice has come—justifiably—as a result of his employment of Matt Cooke. But for the NHL and for Lemieux himself, I would argue that Cooke’s long suspension couldn’t have come at a better time. For Lemieux, it allows him to put his money where his mouth is by not arguing with the league about the tough penalty imposed on his most contentious player. And for the league, they finally had an opportunity to slam a player hard for his on-ice behavior, in a situation that absolutely no one was going to argue about.

As Elliotte Friedman of CBC said yesterday, “Campbell’s been thrown a belt-high fastball. Now he’s got to crush it.” And so he did. Finally, a good PR outcome out of a bad PR situation.

But reading the editorials in recent days, I’ve been struck by how one-dimensional most people’s view of Cooke is. It’s like he’s been cast as a character from a horror movie that was born as pure evil, making up for his lack of hockey skills by using dirty tricks.

It’s an overly-simplistic view of Cooke’s career, in my opinion.

One thing that has come up repeatedly in the comments we’ve seen around KK and the media is that Lemieux always knew what he was getting when signing Cooke out of Vancouver. That he already had a bad reputation as “dirty” and if Lemieux truly cared about on-ice violence, he wouldn’t have signed him. I don’t think that’s entirely fair to Lemieux or Cooke.

As a Vancouver fan, the player I remember was a lot of things… and yes, “dirty” is absolutely a fair description of a lot of his nonsense. Behind the play he was a master of the role of The Pest. He’d get guys off their game with words, with trips, with hits from behind.

What he didn’t do, however, was go out and recklessly attempt to injure people nearly every time he played.

But didn’t something seem to change with Cooke, in about the last 5 years? My impression was that he seemed to morph from a player who was a hated “pest” to a player who seemed to make deliberately dangerous choices on the ice almost every game. I’m not going to defend those changes, nor can I begin to speak for Cooke about what created that transition in his game, but to me, he seems like a different player.

When I think back to when Lemieux took a chance on Cooke for his Penguins, I think it’s possible that in his mind, he wasn’t signing Psycho Cooke but rather, Pain-in-the-Ass Cooke. A player who could change a game by flying all over the ice like a gladiator on meth, who could will his entire team to lift their energy when things were going bad. He wasn’t ‘clean’, per se, but he always knew where the line was and knew how to straddle it very well, even if he did cross it, too.

That’s the kind of player I remember Cooke used to be. Someone who went back and forth over that line, but not nearly the way he’s behaved in recent years…

In today’s Province, Gordon MacIntyre makes a distinction that’s important:

Of course, there’s a difference between being a gritty player, sandpaper, as players call it, and being dirty.

Kesler, Glass, Alex Burrows and newcomer Maxim Lapierre have all driven opponents to distraction with their pesky ways, trash talk and the odd face wash.

There is a difference, however, between grit and hitting a guy in the head from behind.

A major difference. And while Cooke was never—by any stretch of the imagination—an angel in how he played his game, I used to view him as more sandpaper than psycho.

Maybe I’m remembering things wrong? Probably some things. But what I do know for sure is this: in Cooke’s best days as a Canuck, he was a very useful and effective player who could change a game with his energy, and usually (though not always, I realize) without hurting his team or anyone else.

Apparently those days are long gone, though perhaps this suspension will cause him to reflect on what his game should be. That is: an effective, hated pest who knows where the line is and helps his team with great energy and great penalty killing.

It would certainly be a nice change from the ‘escapee from a lunatic asylum’ image he’s been cultivating in recent years. But one way or another, he’d better figure it out because if he ever does anything like this again, he deserves to leave the game forever.

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