Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins had the proverbial book thrown at him on Monday, one day after he attacked New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh with his elbow. Colin Campbell and the NHL suspended Cooke for potentially the rest of the season if the Pens are unable to advance beyond the first round, and on top of that, he'll lose more than $219,000.
That's all wonderful, but let's remember who we're talking about here. Matt Cooke has seen this song and dance before. The man has been suspended four times and fined countless times (the NHL doesn't release all information on fines, for the record), and really, that's not even including some of his most egregious errors.
That hit on Marc Savard last season that led to dramatic rule changes? No fine, no suspension.
That hit on Vinny Lecavalier a few years ago when he played for the Capitals? No fine, no suspension.
Cooke's been here before. Since the suspension came down on Monday, most people have applauded the NHL's action as a big step forward, a new benchmark for discipline and a deep, fresh breath of relief.. Finally, they're stepping up and doling out legitimate discipline, right?
Well, yes. Of course. It's hard to disagree there.
Cooke's been hit where it hurts the most -- in his wallet -- and his loss will adversely impact a Penguins team that's already severely depleted at the forward position. Nothing hurts more than when your livelihood and your teammates are threatened, especially when your actions are what caused the problem in the first place.
But here's the issue with Matt Cooke and many of the other players like him that serve that pest role in the NHL: They believe that the only reason they're in the league, making any money at all as professional hockey players, is because they step over the line at times and play that on-the-edge style of hockey.
Here's Cooke talking about that exact motivation factor, via a National Post profile of him in early March:
"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."
With that comes the risk of suspension and injuring other players, but at the end of the day, that's the price they have to pay to stay in the NHL, and because of that, a simple suspension or fine will never help stop the madness.
Think about it. Sure, 219k is a whole lot of money. In the grand scheme of things, though, if you have to give up that money in order to earn the rest of your paycheck -- in Cooke's case, he'll earn almost $1.8 million after the money from this suspension is taken out of his yearly salary -- it's worth every penny.
So where does the change come from? What motivates these guys like Matt Cooke to change their ways?
You have to attack more than just a fraction of their wallet. You have to present the possibility -- or, even better, the guarantee -- that if this sort of reckless, dangerous, unacceptable play continues, you could lose your entire livelihood. That's the only way to get through to these guys.
Get the message through that no, Matt, you don't need to elbow people in the face to stay in the NHL.
Ray Shero, the general manager that cuts Cooke's check every other week, started down that path after this most recent suspension to his forward. Via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
"I'd prefer to be part of the solution to rehabbing him as a player as opposed to making the decision to toss him overboard to be somebody else's problem and say, 'We did our part,' " Penguins general manager Ray Shero said from Joe Louis Arena, where he arrived around 7 p.m. after attending a discipline hearing with Cooke at the NHL offices in Toronto.
"He's a value to our team when he plays hockey. For him to stay in the league and be a player in this league, he's going to have to do that."
That's the tough part about it, right? Cooke does bring a whole lot to the table for the Penguins, but if that quote from Cooke above is any indication, it's apparent that he himself doesn't realize how much value he brings to the team.
Cooke has scored 30 points a year every season he's been with Pittsburgh, including this one. He's a great third line piece that brings some energy, and he is in fact a legitimate player in the NHL, unlike some of the hired fists that ride the bench in just about every league game. He truly doesn't need to be a mad man on the rink to stay in the NHL, but he believe he does.
That's the problem. Maybe it's a lack of communication or a general cultural issue within the game, but until it's rectified, Matt Cooke and other players that fill the same role on other teams are going to continue to injure people and they're going to continue to have jobs.