Matt Cooke has been a lot of things in his NHL career. Many of them are negative.
I don't need to waste your time talking about Cooke's suspension history. In six suspensions covering 32 regular season and playoff games, Cooke has earned every negative label that has ever been used to describe a hockey player.
A history of predatory, head-hunting contact almost ruined the NHL career of a serviceable player. If it had, and Matt Cooke never played another game after he destroyed Ryan McDonagh in March 2011, no one would have said a negative word about the process that drove Cooke out of the league. The league, after all, would have been better off.
Instead, Cooke vowed up and down he would change. He did. He didn't take a single major penalty in a game from the point he hit McDonagh until last season, when he got the boot for a hit from behind in the playoffs against Boston. Cooke was not suspended for that collision with Adam McQuaid of the Bruins. There was the Erik Karlsson bit, but Cooke wasn't called on the carpet for that (well, outside of Ottawa, at least).
Cooke stayed out of trouble so long that he is no longer considered a repeat offender by the NHL. That doesn't mean his suspension history doesn't matter, but it affects the amount of money he can be docked for offenses. It's still a significant fact. His other six suspensions came over a span of three seasons, between 2008-09 and 2010-11. The McDonagh ban was the longest.
(To be fair here, there should have been a seventh, because Cooke wasn't suspended for the Marc Savard hit. And no one is going to argue that was the correct call, no matter what the NHL said about the hit, or how quickly rules were changed in response.)
When Cooke signed with the Minnesota Wild in the summer, Wild fans were practically apoplectic. They just didn't know how to react. Wild fans can be a little maddening, with their "Minnesota Nice" tendencies at the rink and what feels sometime like an unwillingness to make any kind of notable noise. But they care about this team, and they care about this team's reputation. What would Cooke do to that reputation?
(Again, to be fair, most of you fine folks are passionate about one team or another in this league. And you probably all feel that way about your team's rep. No one wants their favorite team to be branded as dirty. Except Flyers fans, who wear it like a badge, and we love you for it.)
(Also, as a means of full disclosure, I'm based in Minnesota and cover college and high school hockey in the state. I wrote over the summer on the Cooke signing for my personal blog, and I still stand by the words there.)
For 82 games, Cooke did nothing to hurt the Wild. In fact, he helped them. Cooke has morphed into a high-caliber defensive forward, a guy capable of playing regular minutes against top players while also taking big shifts on the penalty kill.
But Monday night, in Game 3 of the Wild's first-round series against Colorado, Cooke's reputation became a storyline once again.
This hit on Tyson Barrie probably ended Barrie's season. He's out four to six weeks.
Cooke received a minor penalty for kneeing, and he went on to lead Minnesota with six of the team's 33 hits in a 1-0 overtime win. His line, with rookies Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, shut down Colorado's top line after that group almost single-handedly beat the Wild in Game 2 Saturday.
I'm not going to defend the hit. Cooke stuck his knee out, and while he lunges forward as if trying to throw a clean body check, he also had plenty of time to recognize that he couldn't get Barrie with a clean body check. Much like many illegal checks to the head, Cooke could have adjusted his path, and as the aggressor on the play, the onus is on Cooke to make that adjustment.
It's a suspension-worthy hit, especially when you watch the NHL-produced video on kneeing. I'd even argue that suspending Cooke for the rest of this series -- a max of four games -- is perfectly justifiable.
But what if you double that?
The NHL Department of Player Safety offered Cooke an in-person hearing, which indicates a suspension of more than five games is in the cards. That hearing will be held Wednesday afternoon in New York. If Cooke gets six or more games, it could be the longest suspension ever levied for a kneeing penalty. And considering the league decided to offer Cooke a flight to New York to plead his case in person, you should consider yourself stunned if he isn't suspended at least six games. He's probably looking at more than six, unless he can find a way to successfully talk down the Department of Player Safety. Good luck with that.
I get that Cooke has a history. No one is going to deny or understate that. However, is this the worst kneeing incident in NHL history?Was it even the worst kneeing incident of the first round of the playoffs?
No fine or suspension. Not even a phone call from the NHL to say, "Hey, don't do that."
The hits are similar. Both Cooke and Bickell may have wanted to throw a clean body check, but both had time to recognize that was impossible. And neither bailed on their hit. In fact, if you freeze-frame the hits, Bickell's leg appears to be extended further at the point of contact than Cooke's is.
The differences? Bryan Bickell isn't considered a dirty player by every hockey fan alive, and Sobotka wasn't injured like Barrie is. Reality is that if Barrie does that to Cooke, the hockey world probably would have given him a raucous cheer and all the fist bumps a young defenseman could want.
Are those fair standards? No. But those are the standards the NHL and NHLPA have collectively bargained and chosen to employ. Cooke will pay a high price for what he did. He might not play again this season. In fact, I'd be surprised if he did, largely because it means the Wild advanced in this series.
Surely, some Wild fans feel duped on this day. They shouldn't. Cooke gave them an honest effort for 84 games plus preseason. Unfortunately, he just couldn't make it through an 85th without avoiding controversy.