Matt Cooke is spending part of his days as a suspended NHL player in front of a video screen, with Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma or one of his assistants, Tony Granato or Todd Reirden.
There, Cooke sits and watches the dirty hits that brought the outrage of the hockey world down on him last month.
The idea, Penguins general manager Ray Shero said, is to bring back a changed man when Cooke returns from his latest suspension that covered the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh leads the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first-round series three games to one, with a chance to close it out Saturday (CBC, noon ET). If the Pens advance, he could be back in action as early as next week.
"The coaches say [to Cooke]you have to be careful with this, be more conscious of this," Shero said. "I think he wants to change the way things happen for him."
Shortly after NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell announced the fifth suspension of Cooke's career for a hit to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh on March 20, Cooke said, "I realize and understand more so now than ever that I need to change."
The million-dollar question is, can he change? Is the 32-year-old forward afflicted with an internal trigger that sets off uncontrollable, violent behaviour? Or is his intimidating, injurious style of play really a cold, contrived strategy designed to keep him playing in the NHL as long as possible?
NHL players, coaches, GMs and fans and media paint a picture of Cooke as the dirtiest player in the league. They point to a long list of victims, including Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Fedor Tyutin and Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin this season. Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard's career remains in jeopardy because of the head shot Cooke delivered more than a year ago, causing a severe concussion.
"He never told us that [he must play recklessly] but he's one of those players, where that is his game," former Vancouver Canucks teammate Daniel Sedin says. "It's not his game to rip heads off, but his game is being physical. He's always been a good skater, and with the new rules, he's getting in on the fore-check a lot easier that he used to, with a lot more speed. I could name 15 other players who are the same way, but obviously, lately, he's done some things that shouldn't be in hockey. If you look at the last few incidents, obviously that is not hockey."
Cooke himself isn't saying these days. The Penguins are not making him available for interviews during the suspension, and Cooke did not respond to interview requests placed through his agent.
Those who know him, from relatives to old friends in his eastern Ontario hometown of Stirling, to former and current teammates, believe he can alter his ways. Many describe him as a "good guy" off the ice. It is far too simple, they say, to cast Cooke as an on-ice, unrepentant thug.
They will tell you about an undersized small-town kid who had the drive to make it to the NHL despite an ordinary career in junior hockey. They will tell you about a community-minded man who has the initials of his wife Michelle and his children, daughters Gabby and Reece and son Jackson, tattooed on his arms.
They will tell you about The Cooke Family Foundation of Hope, formed by Matt and Michelle, that carries out genuine good works in Pittsburgh and back home around Stirling.
Cooke outfitted his old Tier 2 junior team, the Wellington Dukes, with new gloves and donated $5,000 to the Stirling Minor Hockey Association, specifying the money was to go toward house-league tournaments, because those kids don't often get to experience tournaments like players on the rep teams do.
"He told me he'd play in the NHL some day, and I said, 'Yeah right,' " said Steve Bell, the former play-by-play voice of Cooke's junior team, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. "He certainly proved me wrong. He would play on the edge and get under other guys' skin."
Cooke put up 95 points in one season with the Spitfires but he was no stranger to the penalty box. He fought a lot in junior hockey, something he does not do much in the NHL since his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame does not match well with the league's heavyweights.
Some who knew him and fought him in junior say he was always antagonistic, but his style has changed.
"He was a talker, and he would whack you or hit you, whatever it took to get you annoyed. But he could also put the puck in the net," said Mark Cadotte, a former OHL player who says he was "no angel" himself and fought Cooke, by his count, at least eight times. "But I never hated him. It's deliberate, what he does in the NHL. I never saw him throw elbows in junior."
Others say Cooke's actions are not always deliberate, nor do they spring from the stereotype of a player who snaps once he gets on the ice. Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins' assistant to the GM, once played with former Toronto Maple Leafs agitator Darcy Tucker, who often heard the same accusations Cooke does.
"Darcy Tucker was one of the best teammates I ever had," Fitzgerald said. "But he's a hockey player and he was a fierce competitor. A guy you don't like playing against but you love him as a teammate. Matt Cooke is the same way. He's a good teammate."
Rob and Irene Cooke, Matt's aunt and uncle, billeted junior players from the Belleville Bulls in their home when Matt was a child. Irene remembers a boy who had a passion for hockey but still liked to play the piano.
"We're as shocked as anyone to see these hits. In some ways, we should all feel responsible for the Matt Cookes of the game, because we all stand up and cheer for fights and big hits," Irene Cooke said. "But he has gone too far. If they are going to clamp down on this stuff, they need to clamp down on everyone who is doing it. He's not some goon. I don't think Pittsburgh would have made him an assistant captain if he was."
Cooke's background in the league does not fit the goon stereotype. In 13 years divided among the Canucks, Washington Capitals and the Penguins he has been penalized for fighting just 20 times.
"There's no question teammates had to fight battles he started," said Brad May, a retired enforcer who played with Cooke on the Canucks. "That was uncomfortable for us at times but, and this is a big but, having a teammate like Matt Cooke made me more money and made me a more valuable teammate."
May knows Cooke will never win the Lady Byng Trophy but he thinks he can change his game enough to survive.
"Matt Cooke is not stupid," May said. "I know it's awfully difficult to change your ways. But he's got a good enough skill set, he's not just an idiot out there, he can play. He can play close to that same edge and be a real impact player."
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