Apparently, Matt Cooke is a human being. A profile on the Penguins' pest is up at National Post today, and it portrays him as the antique-collecting, charity-giving father of three who's just doing what he has to do to make it in the National Hockey League.
This quote in the story from Cooke was telling.
"I've always said that, you know, what I am on the ice is a persona that has enabled me to stay in the league for 13 years," Cooke said. "It's not who I am, and it's not what makes me. It's just something I have to do to stay in the NHL."
That really goes to the core of the existence of the tough guy or the enforcer or the pest in the sport. I can say that in my experience, these characters are the nicest guys on the team off the ice -- and I cover the Philadelphia Flyers, off all teams, on a daily basis. Sure, that's a blanket generalization, but it's more true than not.
To suggest that this is a justification for what he does on the ice, though, is just not correct.
We all know what Matt Cooke brings to a game. He's a fast-paced, hard-hitting forward who'll protect his teammates at all costs. He does have a purpose in the NHL, too, as he and most of the guys that fit into his mold do have definable hockey skill.
But there are plenty of guys who perform that same function on a team without constantly stepping over the line as Cooke does. Cooke isn't the NHL's chief villain because he's a misunderstood guy just trying to make a living at any cost. He's earned that reputation because he constantly steps over that line without any regard for the opposing team.
For that, he deserves blame. He's not just a guy trying to make a living. You can be effective without ruining Marc Savard's life.
Let's not mistake the blame, though. Certainly some of it falls on Cooke's shoulders for being the reckless, dangerous player that he is despite his calm, polite off-ice demeanor, but most of it falls upon the NHL. He feels that he has to play over the line to stay in the NHL, despite the skill set that he does have.
That's a cultural problem that the NHL and the greater hockey community has to rectify. It's something the teams that employ these players has to address, and until that happens, Cooke and others like him are going to go about their business like they're just trying to earn an honest living.
H/T: Bruce Arthur