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The Globe and Mail

Lengthy Cooke suspension brings sense of calm back to NHL

In this photo from March 20, 2011, Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke (24) is escorted from the ice by NHL linesman Derek Amell (75) after he was elected for elbowing New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the third period of the NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh. The league announced on Monday March 23, 2011 that Cooke has been suspended for the remainder of the regular season (10 games) and the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the infraction.

Keith Srakocic

After weeks of near constant criticism for not punishing on-ice violence, the NHL was able to bask in rare praise on Tuesday for finally cracking down on hits to the head with its stiffest suspension of the season.

Faced with a sponsors revolt and polls saying hockey-mad Canadians were about ready to tune-out because of the league's reluctance to reel in violence, the NHL did not let the latest incident go without severe punishment.

Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins was suspended Monday for his team's 10 remaining regular season games and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for his vicious elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh on Sunday.

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With mounting medical evidence that concussions have become an epidemic, and growing anger from within the NHL's ownership ranks, the league managed to quell much of the recent uproar with one decision.

"I think they are trying to be very careful and are doing the right thing," Michael Cramer, director of the sports and media program at the University of Texas-Austin and a former part owner of the Dallas Stars told Reuters.

"The NHL has always been somewhat hands off on anything short of attempted murder, it's a part of the game. A lot of fans like the fighting, it's unlike anything else in any other sport.

"But it seems some fans are getting squeamish ... the NHL has tried to walk a very fine line between letting players have at it and making sure no one is killed and they are being more sensitive to that."

It will take time, however, to determine if the suspension to Cooke heralds an attitude shift within the NHL or another bit of sleight of hand by the league to escape the spotlight.

The NHL has meted out much tougher sanctions before and they produced little significant change to the head-hitting culture that has hurt the game's image.

This time, however, it appears fans will be watching to see if the NHL will be consistent in dispensing punishment, willing to step up and take the tough stand when the decision may not be as universally popular as the one handed to Cooke.

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But not everyone was satisfied as an editorial in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper said Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who spoke out last month against the NHL's weak response to on-ice violence, must further punish Cooke.

"Mario Lemieux, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club, should put his money where his mouth is and terminate his contractual arrangement with Matt Cooke, probably the National Hockey League's dirtiest player," read the editorial.

"It is rare in any private business that an employee who gives the company a black eye as often as Matt Cooke has should be given so many chances to reform."

The leading candidate for the twin titles of NHL's dirtiest and most despised player, Cooke provided league disciplinarians with an easy target.

A repeat offender with five suspensions, Cooke has earned the reputation as the NHL's most notorious headhunter.

The NHL has handed out 31 suspensions for various offences this season but the bans have offered little deterrent with the vast majority falling into the two- or three-game range.

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The NHL will be hoping Cooke's latest penalty, which will also cost him a whopping $219,000 in lost wages, will send a clear message that such acts will no longer be tolerated.

But even in the face of a fan backlash last week, the league doled out two game bans to Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand and San Jose Sharks right winger Dany Heatley for hits that were viewed as no worse than Cooke's on McDonagh.

Much of the recent furor stems from an ugly scene earlier this month when Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara rode Montreal's Max Pacioretty into a rinkside partition leaving him crumpled on the ice with a broken vertebrae and severe concussion.

Despite incurring a major penalty on the play, Chara went unpunished by the NHL triggering outrage from all corners.

A 13-year veteran who helped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009, Cooke is seen as a "character" guy in the Pittsburgh dressing room. But few have jumped to Cooke's defence, not his team mates, owners, coaches or fellow players.

"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said in a statement, echoing the mood of many hockey fans.

"Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

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