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(Keith Srakocic/AP2010)
(Keith Srakocic/AP2010)

Roy MacGregor

Even Penguins think Cooke's suspension 'warranted' Add to ...

There are players who are born gifted and then there are those who turn into gifts.

Meet Matthew David Cooke, born 32 years ago in Belleville, Ont., a National Hockey League player of modest skill but, as of Monday, MVP-level impact.

Or at least it is to be hoped.

Matt Cooke has been suspended for the remainder of the season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for Sunday's elbow - a blindside hit broadcast in high-definition around North America - on the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh.

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"Remainder of the season" sounds so much tougher than "10 games," though they amount to the same. The first round of the playoffs - a time of year when the league's dirtiest player is often at his most effective - is even better.

One would think that this would distress the Pittsburgh Penguins and its Hall-of-Fame owner, Mario Lemieux, but one would be wrong to think this. The Penguins, Stanley Cup champions less than two years ago, are already in trouble this spring with captain Sidney Crosby still sidelined with concussion and injuries to several other players. And yet, the loss of Cooke, a penalty-kill specialist who can actually play the game when he sets his muddled mind to it, is welcomed by his teammates and his owner.

"The suspension is warranted," Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said in a statement posted on the team website, "because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey."

Shero attended the long league disciplinary meeting in Toronto with Cooke and then flew to Detroit, where the Penguins were to play Monday night. He was reached there by telephone.

"We feel strongly about it," Shero said. "This is something we need out of the game. If you want to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk."

Several weeks ago, Lemieux spoke out against violence on the ice following a penalty-filled brawl between his Penguins and the New York Islanders. The game, he said, had become "a travesty" and he warned that if hockey did not right itself, he might himself leave the game. Lemieux was roundly criticized for speaking out in such a manner when he himself employed one of the game's worst perpetrators, Cooke. A week ago in Boca Raton, Fla., Shero was among a vocal minority of league GMs calling for a total ban on hits to the head, accidental or not.

"You've got to deal with it," Shero said. "You can't change your tune when it's your own player. Perhaps this can be a lesson for other teams."

It is a most welcome turn of events for the NHL, coming at a time that feels scripted. It has not been a good 2011 for the NHL. A year that began with Crosby's concussion in the New Year's Day Winter Classic had become a year in which professional hockey's image had come to resemble a PR disaster headed into BP and Tiger Woods territory.

With several of its stars concussed, on-ice brawls, science producing evidence that hits to the head are long-term and life threatening, public opinion boiling and a singular hit by a Boston Bruins player that left a Montreal Canadiens player with a fractured vertebra, and corporate sponsors calling for action, the NHL had to act.

At Boca Raton, commissioner Gary Bettman had delivered a five-point plan, beginning with new diagnosis protocol on concussions and including improvements to rinks, glass and equipment. The GMs had also tweaked two old rules, charging and boarding, and decided they would be enforced properly next year. They stopped short of banning all hits to the head, as Shero and a few others had wished, but at least there was movement.

Coincidentally, however, there were two separate incidents that saw the hitters punished with two games apiece - punishment that amounts to a welcome "holiday" at this time of year. These two light slaps of the wrist, and the fact that no supplementary suspension had been handed down in the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, only served to inflame public opinion all the more.

But then, Matt Cooke stepped in.

It could not have been more perfect. Rule 48, the NHL's only rule so far on blindside hits to the head, is, after all, known as The Matt Cooke Rule. Its raison d'être dates from Cooke's devastating hit to the head of Boston's Marc Savard a year ago. Cooke is a classic "repeat offender," now suspended for the fifth time in his career. And best of all, the hit on McDonagh was a clinical demonstration of the illegal head hit, a sharp elbow delivered without provocation on an unsuspecting player nowhere near the puck.

There is also no sympathy for Matt Cooke, an important point in a sport where, for whatever reasons, "personality" factors into "punishment." His own teammates are sick of his act.

So, too, is the hockey world at large. A month ago, former New Jersey Devils defenceman Ken Daneyko called for an "open season for one week on Matt Cooke. You won't get suspended."

Monday in Ottawa, former player Garry Galley told sports radio that "Matt Cooke needs psychiatric help." Boston Bruins rookie Brad Marchand, himself finishing a suspension for an illegal hit, said: "He's got to be taught a lesson."

Perhaps he has. "The onus is on him," Shero said.

More importantly, perhaps the NHL has itself learned something important.

That hard hits off the ice will also be cheered.

 

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