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Could Matt Cooke be the poster boy for player safety?

Nov 16, 2011, 5:28 PM EDT

Matt Cooke Getty Images

While it might be too soon to start engraving it on the Lady Byng trophy, the name “Matt Cooke” could soon be synonymous with gentlemanly conduct.

Yes, seriously.

That’s something Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press touched on in a piece discussing the NHL’s culture shift of player safety. Cooke, arguably the most active cheap-shot artists of our generation, has been suspended five times for illegal hits. Yet this year, he seems to have turned over a new leaf.

Cooke’s focus is on skill, not kill — he has 10 points in 17 games with a plus-3 rating — and perhaps most impressively, he’s recorded just four penalty minutes.

“For Brendan Shanahan and player safety, here’s a guy that they can show on some highlights and the videos, where he’s not taking the hit or he is pulling up (in dangerous situations),” Penguins GM Ray Shero told Johnston. “He’s still got a ways to go. But in the first portion of the season here and exhibition as well, he has changed the way he’s played and he’s still a really good effective player for us in his role.

“That’s good news for us and it’s good news for Brendan Shanahan in terms of what he’s trying to do.”

The turning point for Cooke was in March, when he got tagged for his fifth and most recent suspension following an elbow on the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh. That one cost him 10 regular-season games and the entire first round of the playoffs — 17 games all told. But after spending the offseason re-evaluating his game and watching 30 hours of video, Cooke seems to have figured out how to be an effective NHLer without maiming his peers. Which is nice.

“I like the player, I like the person and I think he has got something to add,” said Shero. “After the McDonagh incident he did a lot of self-examination with his family and what he wanted to be as a person and a father and a player.”

Cooke’s transformation could be seen as a microcosm of what Shanahan hopes to do with the NHL. A combination of stern punishment, video integration and emphasizing player respect went a long way in Cooke’s rehabilitation — the same things Shanahan is utilizing as the new discipline czar.

  1. charlutes - Nov 16, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    Cooke has thrown multiple cheap shots, far worse than anything anyone did to Sidney Crosby. He’s ended a career from an elbow to the head. I’m supposed to praise this guy for not doing it in the first 15 games this season? Absolute popycock. This is a prime example of how screwy the perception of “dirty players” and illegal hits is warped. There’s no real consensus on what is legal, what is a head shot etc. We see it every time anyone gets injured, there’s always a big argument about who’s to blame because of how rediculously vague the NHL rules are. Cooke is a half decent player who has no problem ruining other players lives when he feels like he wants to. Ill wait until his next elbowing incident to drop the I told you so.

  2. rainyday56 - Nov 17, 2011 at 2:05 AM

    30 hours of video eh? Wonder if they had ol’ Cookie strapped to chair with his eyes forced open to watch it like in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”? … cool!

  3. danphipps01 - Nov 17, 2011 at 3:26 AM

    Meh. I said it in the pre-season discussions of what Shanny’s new rule would mean – guys like Carcillo and Cooke would have to heave back on the reins if they intended to play more than twenty games this season, and so far, both have. It seems like the guys with a penchant for dirty play in their histories have played the season thus far with great caution, and the results have been pretty cool – the two players I mentioned have turned into significant point producers on their teams and gone a long way to demonstrate additional skillsets beyond “Be a fucking jackass.”

    Obviously, we’re not even a quarter of the season in here. Plenty of time. Even Cooke generally only makes one major cheap shot a season, so the window is vast – but I like what I’ve seen so far. I’ll reserve judgment one way or the other until season’s end. It does seem like he’s committed to the game so far, but it only takes one lapse of control and it’ll be the wrath of Brendan Shanahan upon him.

  4. carol6645 - Nov 18, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    Matt Cooke is working hard to change what hockey has expected from him-hard, dirty hits! Unlike many others he is working at it with help from others. He is literally being retrained. I am proud of him as a Penguins fan. The team shines and Matt Cooke shines as a productive player! Love the clean, real hockey he is playing!! Let’s see how other dirty players do in comparison. I hope more follow Cooke’s lead!

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