Matt Cooke is a pretty detestable hockey player, and I don't think his biggest defenders could even argue against that. The man's track record is one that speaks for itself, and despite a lengthy suspension at the end of the last season in which he ultimately missed 17 games, it's unlikely that his behavior or our general perception of him changes any time soon.
Off the ice, he seems like a genuinely nice person, as is seemingly the case with just about every professional hockey player. He was portrayed in HBO's 24/7 last winter as a wholesome family man that just needs to play hockey on the edge to make his living, and a National Post profile of him in March painted the same picture.
As his lengthy suspension was handed down in late March, I wrote about this dichotomy between Cooke's off-ice persona and his on-ice crimes against the sport.
The crux of my argument was that it wasn't even necessarily Cooke's fault that he plays with a violent streak that endangers his fellow players; instead, it's the system that perpetuates this belief that he needs to turn aside his actual, definable hockey skill in order to make it as an NHL player. Matt Cooke isn't a bad third line NHL player, and that has nothing to do with his ability to lead careers down a path of ruin.
There's one thing more detestable in hockey than being Matt Cooke, though, and that's wanting to be like Matt Cooke. That's exactly what fresh-faced Washington Capitals prospect Danick Paquette proudly proclaimed on Thursday during the team's development camp. Via Washington Times reporter Stephen Whyno:
Paquette drilled Adam Mitchell with a blind-side hit in a development camp scrimmage on Thursday and was not only unapologetic about it later - he compared himself to a major NHL villain.
"I'm a pretty dirty player," Paquette said. "I did my job, like Matt Cooke."
He did his job. Just like that guy that everybody hates. Well, hey, at least that's a way to make a name for yourself. (Mitchell was apparently fine, by the way. Thankfully.)
We're not just at the point now where Matt Cooke is detested as a hockey player by fans and opposing players and likely many within the NHL establishment as well. This isn't about one player or even a generation of players finding that playing with reckless abandon is a feasible way to earn an NHL living. This is now a multi-generational issue, with young, borderline NHL prospects looking up to guys like Cooke as a way to get paid.
After all, Matt Cooke earned more than $2 million last year. It's chump change in the sporting world, but that doesn't mean it's not a ton of money -- more than Paquette would earn doing likely anything else in life after hockey. So what if these guys have to break a few skulls to make it happen? Means to an end, or something.
This is where we need to see a change in the culture. It's not on the players at this point -- it's on the establishment to make sure this doesn't happen. Whether it's the horrible inconsistency in the suspensions and discipline handed down by the NHL, the fact that these guys are given ice time by their coaches or the fact that general managers and owners continue to sign their paychecks, something has to give.
They're not giving it up on their own.
If Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau's reaction to Paquette's actions in Thursday's scrimmage are any indication, however, that's not happening any time soon. Again, via Whyno at the Times:
"If Colie Campbell was watching it might've been a little bit of a dirty hit in the first period, but that's what he's gotta be is one of those guys that everybody loves to hate," Boudreau said. "And he scores a goal, hits a guy with what was a clean hit in the third period and ends up getting into a fight. He did everything what you expect him to do."
He's just doing everything you'd expect him to do.
You know, he's gotta be dirty if he's gonna make it in this league.