Matt Cooke, one of the NHL's most notorious cheap-shot artists, had his day in court Wednesday, appearing for an in-person hearing with the league's player safety department to discuss why he stuck his knee out at the Colorado Avalanche's Tyson Barrie in the third period of Monday's game, won 1-0 by the Minnesota Wild in overtime.
Ultimately, the league, in the person of Stephane Quintal, the interim director of player safety, made the penalty relatively severe for a kneeing infraction. Cooke's sixth career suspension will keep him out of seven games and means he will not be eligible to play again until the second round, if Minnesota advances. If Cooke's suspension is not fully served during the playoffs, the remaining games will be served at the beginning of the 2014-15 regular season. Since players don't draw their regular salaries during the playoffs, the only way the suspension can hurt Cooke in the pocket book is if the Wild lose in the opening round.
Of course, seven games or 70, it really doesn't matter much to the Avalanche. They will play the rest of the round without Barrie, who'd become an important part of their offence in the second half of the season. On an Avalanche team with a Vezina Trophy candidate in goal (Semyon Varlamov) and oodles of young scoring talent up front (Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog), the one area where they lack depth is on the blue line.
So Barrie's absence becomes acute and when seeing the video of Cooke just throwing his knee out, it is difficult to see it as anything, but a premeditated attempt to injure one of Colorado's most dynamic players. Series have turned on far less in the past.
It's an interesting time for the NHL player-safety department, with Quintal in charge now after Brendan Shanahan stepped down to run the Toronto Maple Leafs. As part of the new hierarchy, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly will reportedly also have a voice in the process, which is interesting, given that Daly is a lawyer by training and also one of the architects of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Under the new CBA, players suspended for six or more games have the right to appeal, first to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and, if unhappy with how that turns out, then to an independent arbitrator. Thus far, no suspended player has taken it as far as that second step, but the league expects it will happen eventually and when it does, having someone with Daly's legal training and background involved in the process will make it easier to make its case, if a defence is ever required.
In its verdict, the league pointed out how "Cooke is leading with his knee, a part of the body with which he cannot legally deliver a check" and went on to say: "Kneeing infractions are evaluated based on the degree of their severity. Many do not rise to the level of supplemental discipline.
"In this case, the distance travelled with an extended knee; the further extension of the knee to ensure contact; the force of the impact; and the resulting injury to an opponent merits supplemental discipline."
Cooke's history with the NHL's supplementary discipline department dates back a decade to 2004 when he was first dinged for spearing Matt Johnson, then with Minnesota. Cooke's longest suspension came in 2011 as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he was banned for 10 regular-season games, plus the first-round of the playoffs, for an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonough.
It ended up as a 17-game ban in total, because the Penguins went seven that year in the opening round, before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Of course, Cooke got off scot free for his most notorious hit – a blindside shot to the head of the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard that ultimately contributed to the end of Savard's career and led to the NHL eventually banning blindside hits to the head. And a lot of people in Ottawa, beginning with Senators' owner Eugene Melnyk, believe that when Cooke's skate severed Erik Karlsson's Achilles tendon last season, it was a deliberate act, and not accidental at all.
So however many offences you want to include on Cooke's rap sheet – and technically, he does not qualify for repeat-offender status because he has no fines or suspensions on his resume the past 18 months – the fact is, he represents a clear and present danger to NHL opponents whenever he is on the ice. The sooner he follows the Patrick Kaletas and Sean Averys of the world into obscurity, the better off everyone will be.
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