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Minnesota Wild left wing Matt Cooke reaches to control the puck against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series on Saturday, April 19, 2014, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Minnesota Wild left wing Matt Cooke reaches to control the puck against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series on Saturday, April 19, 2014, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Sean Gordon

Playing dirty in the NHL doesn’t trump playing with skill Add to ...

Inside the boards, a hockey player’s true character is laid bare; the NHL is a reputation league and the tags are sticky.

Thus does the concept of the “mean streak” enter into the equation – it’s a label that has particular currency in hockey.

How else to explain that serial harmer of opponents Matt Cooke – whose latest transgression is a nasty knee-on-knee hit on Colorado’s Tyson Barrie that resulted in a seven-game ban – continues to find suitors whenever he hits free agency.

This is his seventh suspension; after a three-year reformation during which he cut his penalty-minute totals in half, these playoffs have revived his inner scourge.

He’s not alone. Dallas’s Antoine Roussel has become one of the most-loathed players in the league this season; his body of work includes punching Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf on his injured chin. The New York Rangers have the oft-suspended Daniel Carcillo, the San Jose Sharks employ noted miscreant Raffi Torres, St. Louis has Maxim Lapierre – who dished out a nasty hit from behind this week.

The fact is, having a nasty reputation is no barrier to success – Cooke, who has played 1,117 NHL games, scoring 422 points and earning north of $15.4-million (U.S.), has his name etched on the Stanley Cup. The natural tension at the heart of the sport, at the pro level at least, pits physical aggression – and fear – against skill (the former being the most reliable way to thwart the latter, which is in much shorter supply).

You don’t have to play with a flinty edge to be in the NHL, but every team is well-stocked with players who do, and this is the time of year when they step to the fore. Players such as the Boston Bruins’ force-of-nature winger Milan Lucic, the modern archetype of hockey mean.

“They know you’re coming, and you know you’re coming, it’s playing with that willingness to engage and get in there,” Lucic said in a recent interview.

Intimidation is a real thing in pro hockey.

(“I discovered that when I was 12, 13, in minor hockey, when you start hitting … it’s always come naturally,” Lucic said, smiling) and has been since before the game was moved indoors in the late 1800s.

The most sought-after combination in hockey is the player who contains the rare alloy of fearlessness, pugnacity and skill – who inspires fear and possesses the hockey talent to leverage it. Monumental figures Gordie Howe and Maurice (Rocket) Richard are the ur-examples; so are players such as Bobby Orr, and the man who seemed destined to become the most dominant player in the history of the game – big, malicious, scary-good Eric Lindros. That Lindros’s career was derailed by one of the nastier players in hockey’s brawny annals – the New Jersey Devils’ Scott Stevens – is perhaps not irony so much as it is symmetry.

It turns out there’s a good deal of advanced scholarship on antagonistic behaviour – repackaged in the minds of some hockey people as “character.”

A Canadian psychology professor, Del Paulhus of the University of British Columbia, has identified four broad categories of what he calls dark personalities; the one that most closely relates to hockey is “everyday sadists.”

“Hockey, I believe, has the highest ratio of intimidation to skill,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s the only sport with enforcers, the only one where you’re required to finish your check on a player who has made a pass. Hockey is sending a message: Be as violent as possible.”

The perp becomes the victim

There is a problem, of course, with the image blasted across North America this week of a heavily padded upper arm colliding at brain-rattling speed with a helmeted, defenceless head. It’s not the obvious one. Beyond the immediate medical consequences for the guy whose grey matter is being abused (the St. Louis Blues’ David Backes) and the punishment meted on the owner of the shoulder and biceps (the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook), there lies swampy moral ground.

In the NHL, the perp has typically been the victim at some point – and vice versa.

Seabrook knows what it’s like to be carried off the ice with a concussion – he was drilled behind the net by then-Vancouver Canucks miscreant Raffi Torres in 2011, and a year earlier was popped on the end boards by then-Anaheim Duck James Wisniewski, who had invited Seabrook to his wedding.

Backes, for his part, has been known to occasionally stick out a knee (Matt Stajan), crank someone’s head into the boards after a whistle (Jamie McGinn), cross-check an unsuspecting opponent (Tomas Holmstrom), crush an Olympic teammate with a brutal open-ice hit (Dustin Brown), or punch a skill guy in the face during a scrum (Daniel Sedin).

The point is few, if any, cowboys in this picture are wearing white hats.

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