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The Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke plays against the Leafs on Dec. 8, 2010. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)
The Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke plays against the Leafs on Dec. 8, 2010. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

James Mirtle

Less spice in Matt Cooke's new recipe Add to ...

It has been 10 months since Matt Cooke made his pledge to change.

To change how he hit. To change how he played the game.

And to change, more than anything, the type of recklessness that resulted in the Pittsburgh Penguins forward being suspended over and over, including 21 games late last season in two different incidents.

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Those type of plays had become his calling card – and he wanted them to stop.

“I realize and understand, more so now than ever, that I need to change,” Cooke said late last March, a day after he was suspended for the final 10 games of the NHL regular season and the first round of the playoffs for an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “That’s what I wanted my message to be.”

Ten months later, he has appeared to make good on that vow.

Cooke had intended to debut his new self in the playoffs. His suspension left him with a lot of free time, much of which he spent during 30-some hours in a video room with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, reviewing hit after hit to essentially relearn how to play a physical role without hurting his team.

But when Pittsburgh was eliminated in Game 7 of the first round, Cooke suddenly had an entire off-season to continue to dwell on what he wanted to become.

By the time training camp came around, he felt he was more than ready.

Fast-forward 49 games and Cooke had taken just 16 minutes in penalties and not a single suspension heading into Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Cooke added four minutes to that tally Tuesday, and also scored a goal.)

That has been all part of what he calls “the transformation.”

“I tried to retrain mentally myself and how I view the game,” Cooke said. “So when I go and play, it’s different. Right now, it’s at a point where it’s second nature. Certain situations, I just approach differently. I try to get the puck more than I did before.

“The way I played before was to get the biggest hit possible every time no matter what. That’s the way I was taught. That’s the way I had success.”

Looking back, Cooke views the end of last season as a turning point in his career. Even before the suspensions, he had been dealing with his wife, Michelle, undergoing a series of four surgeries for a nearly fatal kidney condition that overwhelmed life off the ice.

Just as she was starting to recover, Cooke was hit with the 17-game suspension that led to his epiphany of sorts.

During that time, he was looking for answers that went beyond hockey and received counselling.

“Trying to manage everything and play hockey [was difficult]” he said. “A lot of people think this is just a game, but it takes a lot of preparation and mental focus to be your best every night. With any lapse, something can happen. Mistakes happen. Unfortunately, my mistake [in hitting McDonagh]was a lot greater than a goal in our net.

“That’s what I talked about to people outside of the organization. But most of the hockey changes came from within. … The new thought process came from Dan and I and our conversations.”

Several Penguins players said Tuesday they can all see that shift in the man they call Cookie.

“He’s just a little bit more controlled,” said Richard Park, who saw a different Cooke when they played together with the Vancouver Canucks six years ago. “He knows that he’s got eyes on him.”

“I’ve noticed over the last month or so, he’s been feeling more comfortable being physical again,” Craig Adams added. “Obviously, within the rules. That was a big part of his game.”

How big a part it will be in the future remains an ongoing question. Because when it comes to one of hockey’s most infamous hitters, there naturally remain many skeptics.

Will there be a relapse? And is Cooke one game away from another “mistake” that will put him in the NHL’s doghouse?

Cooke himself seems to realize blows like the one that essentially ended the career of Boston Bruins star Marc Savard in 2010 have made him the face of vicious hits to the head for years to come, no matter how mild his game gets.

What he wants to change, however, at 33, is the perception he can’t play any other way or that he is a liability to a team that put its faith in him with a three-year contract in 2010.

“I don’t think [fans]will view me differently,” Cooke said. “I don’t really control that. If they [can see it] then great. But I’m not going to lose sleep at night.

“I know what’s happened. I know the changes I’ve made. As long as the people around me know and view me differently then that’s all that matters.”

If all this talk of change actually works, it’s a shift that could make Cooke the poster boy for what NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan is trying to accomplish these days: Keep hockey physical but without the head shots or dirty play.

If it’s worked for Cooke, why not for others?

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