Pittsburgh Penguins winger Matt Cooke enhanced his reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the NHL Sunday afternoon, delivering an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh.
Cooke was given a five-minute major penalty and ejected from the game for the hit. He has already been suspended three times over the past three seasons and prompted the league to adopt Rule 48, banning blindside hits to the head, following his hit on Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard that caused a severe concussion. He is expected to have an in-person meeting with NHL officials in Toronto today.
Cooke’s latest transgression comes a week after the GM meetings where the league vowed to come down harder on players who target the head - especially those who are repeat offenders. It also follows comments by Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and general manager Ray Shero, supporting stiffer penalties for head shots as the team’s star player, Sidney Crosby, tries to return from a concussion.
In light of all of this, we asked the Globe’s team of hockey writers to give their opinion on what sort of punishment Cooke deserves.
The NHL should thank Matt Cooke for staying in character and quickly giving it an opportunity to live up to its vow to come down hard on players who deliberately hit other players on the head.
Cooke also did his employer, Pittsburgh Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux, a big favour. Lemieux now has a chance to back up his recent complaints that the NHL is too soft on players who act like thugs. He can now stand up and condemn the actions of one of his own player, easily the most visible cheap-shot artist in the league, and show he really does have the moral high ground and was not indulging in the time-honoured NHL practice of whining about the actions of opposing players while ignoring the same behaviour from your own.
All of the elements for an eye-opening but just suspension are here: Cooke is a repeat offender with a long rap sheet; the replays show he clearly raised his elbow and drove it into Ryan McDonagh's head; the blow was delivered from the blind side, a no-no under rule 48.
I am not naive enough to believe a league that thinks a four-game suspension is severe is going to give Cooke what he deserves - the rest of the regular season and the playoffs - even if the NHL's general managers said they want discipline czar Colin Campbell to issue longer suspensions for such hits. But if the NHL expects to have any credibility after this, the least Cooke should get is to be suspended for the rest of the regular season, 10 games in this case, plus the first round of the playoffs.
All laudable points, Mr. Shoalts, but since when has the NHL apparatus, which put the 'tude back into moral turpitude, given a jot about its credibility?
The elbow Cooke threw wasn't really any sneakier or more despicable than what Heatley and Marchand did last week.
Both Heatley and Marchand only got two games - a bad joke, particularly in Marchand's case. Cooke gets more because he's a repeat offender and everyone in the league detests him.
But in the surreal alternate reality that is NHL discipline, the immediate precedent is two games. That's another fine mess the league has to live with, although in the tortured logic that pervades the NHL offices, they can probably muster a Sean Avery anti-social behaviour component and whack Cooke with a 10-gamer.
Now, what Mario should do is an interesting question.
Bylsma seemed to ease Cooke under the bus last night rather than sling him, but it seems a strong public statement is in order.
Don't think the team can suspend him under the terms of the CBA - I stand to be corrected - and Cooke has two more years on the contract he signed last summer.
But they could go the Avery route and stick him in anger management counseling, then send him down to Wilkes-Barre.
Want to bet another team would grab him on waivers?
The biggest problem of all in the NHL is that someone almost certainly would - despite all the hand-wringing, this league loves its Averys, Otts, Carcillos, Ruutus, Downies, Kaletas and, yes, Cookes.
So suspend him, banish him, disown him, the NHL has created other Matt Cookes before and will do again.
A thousand more than he's going to get, so what? 1,002?
Thank heavens for Matt Cooke. He surely has no idea how unwittingly he has served the NHL purposes, but it is heaven sent. When the NHL was trying to talk tough - leading into and during the GM meetings in Boca Raton last week - everything that had to do with discipline was falling flat on its face. Chara got nothing, but the hit was moot and highly debated. Still is, in fact. Heatley got two games for a dumb elbow, the light sentence defended as Heatley had been perceived to be a good little boy until he suddenly lashed out in the schoolyard. Another player got two. A player got a fine.... it seemed all so light and meaningless in spite of the tough talk.
So thank you, Matt Cooke. Now the NHL can throw the book at this loose cannon -- gone for the season, minimum -- and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have spoken strongly against thuggery as well as head hits -- can gain the high ground Mario Lemieux somewhat lost when he spoke out against violence yet had Cooke on the roster. The team has a chance to set an example here by embracing the long suspension coming and, perhaps, even going so far as to cut Cooke loose. After all, with the playoffs coming, the last thing the team needs is more dumb penalties that cost them a chance at victory, as happened Sunday.
Supplementary discipline is all about sending messages and if the NHL levies another comparatively weak suspension(of four games or less) against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke for an elbow to the head of Rangers’ defenceman Ryan McDonough, then it will blithely miss an opportunity to show how serious they are about banning cheap shots from the game.
The usual two or three-game suspensions that have mostly been levied this season for contraventions to the blindside head-shot rule (48) amount to little more than a week off. No deterrent really and no message sent - or even worse, the wrong message sent, that a slap on the wrist is the price to pay for a potentially devastating blow to the head of an opponent.
No, NHL players only ever take notice when the penalty is big and lengthy and the stuff of head lines. Some players have shown a willingness to adapt to an NHL where concussion awareness is slowly on the rise. Others seem discouragingly unable to digest the message, or understand the new course that the league needs to plot to make the workplace safer for all. Sadly, Cooke fits into the latter category. It’s time to ensure that he gets it this time: Sit him down for the season and the playoffs. If that doesn’t work, then the right to play in the NHL needs to be withdrawn for good.
Matt Cooke is the consummate repeat offender. Not one of his previous four suspensions has so inspired him to stop his dangerous behaviour.
So if taking away his ice time and money doesn’t work, how about this? How about taking him to a hospital or rehabilitation clinic and forcing him to spend a week with brain-damaged patients?
Have him watch them, have him feed them, if necessary; have him take them to the bathroom. Have him be there and see how these patients interact with family members and just how many people are affected by such an unfortunate turn.
Everything else has failed with Matt Cooke. Appealing to whatever is left of his humanity just might work.
Cooke has an in-person hearing with NHL vice-president Colin Campbell today. This will be his fifth suspension, fourth for head-hitting or hitting-from-behind. All of it suggests he is going to get a stiff suspension, although NHL discipline is so backwards, illogical and senseless that one can never really tell.
In a just world, Cooke would get 10 games (or more), for deliberately going after Ryan McDonagh's head with an elbow. And he should be told that if crosses the line in the postseason, his next suspension will last the remainder of the playoffs.
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