The flying elbows have been parked for now. The dangerous hits, too.
Instead, Matt Cooke was ranked first among NHL goal scorers before Friday’s games; a rarity even he acknowledged by joking someone should take a photograph of the league’s scoring stats. Otherwise who would believe it?
Goal scoring is not what hockey people are expecting from the Pittsburgh Penguins irascible forward. What they want to see is if whether Cooke can be the changed player he has vowed to become.
Over the past two seasons, the hair-trigger Cooke has been seen delivering dirty blows and targeting more heads than a guillotine. He’s been suspended repeatedly by the league; heard his team owner, Mario Lemieux, publicly call for a crackdown on violence; seen teammate Sidney Crosby sidelined by a lingering concussion.
If there was a poster boy for a game knocked senseless, it was Cooke and his toothless expression, “What? Who me?”
But no more, he has said.
After last year’s most serious suspension and a summer of reflection, Cooke opened the 2011-12 regular season Thursday with a two-goal effort that helped the Penguins defeat the Vancouver Canucks. In that game, Cooke was dogged and effective on the penalty-killing unit yet never once crossed the line.
Saturday, the Penguins play the Flames in Calgary and the remaking of Matt Cooke continues.
“After everything I’ve been through in the last 18 months, if I hadn’t scored and we’d won the game, I would have been just as happy,” Cooke said Friday. “I’m not always going to be scoring two goals.”
Cooke became the most hated man in the game for a series of hits that angered many, injured Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard and rocked New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh. Told to sit in the corner for Pittsburgh’s final 10 regular-season games plus the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Cooke saw the light.
During his time out, he met with team officials and talked about changing his game. The Penguins, who clearly liked Cooke’s energy, decided to work with him. During the summer, the coaching staff sat him down and made him watch video of plays where he could have avoided hits and other plays where he did.
“Right away my focus was, ‘How do I stop this?’ I recognized it. I took responsibility,” he said. “We analyzed video. The only way to guarantee success, for me, was to change the approach. … I’ve had a good start to work on it. It’s just retraining your thoughts. I’m still going to give a body check, be physical and help out on the penalty kill.”
But those reckless moments, throwing an elbow into the ear of an unsuspecting rival, those are the ones Cooke has talked openly of eliminating. Asked if seeing Crosby sidelined by a concussion had any bearing on changing his focus, Cooke replied: “Obviously, you’re concerned for his health. You want him to get better. But that whole comparison of situations, I had to go through a change whether Sid had a concussion or not. Regardless, I had to change.”
That said, the hockey world remains skeptical of a player who has earned a reputation for reckless behaviour. Cooke understands how that came to be. What he hopes now is that his changed persona last longer than his reign as the league’s top goal scorer.
“The proof,” he said, “is in my play.”