Last month Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said, “If Matt Cooke can change, anybody can change.”
Cooke agrees. The Wild forward has long been considered everything from a headhunter to a cheap-shot artist, but after concussing the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh and getting dinged with a 17-game suspension in 2011, Cooke worked hard to change the way he played the game.
In 139 regular-season games since, Cooke has accumulated 84 penalty minutes, no major penalties and no suspensions.
That’s why Cooke offered his rehabilitation services to Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta when he saw the forward waiting for former teammate Jason Pominville after Monday’s Wild-Sabres game.
Cooke had never met Kaleta, but he’s been in his shoes. Cooke knew Kaleta was a day away from an in-person hearing with the NHL for checking Columbus’ Jack Johnson in the head.
Kaleta, long vilified as one of the league’s dirtiest players, has since been suspended 10 games, which he is appealing.
“I think he’s got to understand the position he’s in,” Cooke said. “It’s not fun, it’s lonely. If he doesn’t want to change, it’s not going to happen no matter how much everybody wants to help. It’s got to come from within. That’s the deal. It’s not easy. It’s not just snap your finger and the change happens.”
So Cooke told Kaleta if he wanted to ever hear what Cooke did to change, he should feel free to reach out to him.
For Cooke, it began with hours of video with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato.
“The video helped me retrain my brain to visually see the game different,” Cooke said. “Instead of, ‘That guy has the puck, go get the biggest hit possible,’ it’s now, ‘Is he right- or left-handed, where are the boards, what are his tendencies?’ That has to happen fast on the ice.
“So I’d watch hockey games. Not of me. Just games. I’d watch a play and as soon as a guy gets the puck, stop. ‘What should I be doing?’ Then play, stop, play, stop. What I realized, there’s so many high-risk plays every game that are split seconds from being so bad, you can never even imagine. But say a guy like [the Rangers’ Ryan] Callahan, he plays physical, but he’s safe and responsible.”
Cooke tries to play that way now. There have been plenty of examples already this short season where years ago Cooke probably would have pasted a player to the boards.
Now, he peels off, tries to proceed on the side of caution.
In Buffalo on Monday, Cooke was skating in to check defenseman Mike Weber. At the last second, Weber turned his back to Cooke. Cooke couldn’t stop, but instead of boarding Weber, Cooke reacted by bear-hugging Weber, holding him up and riding the two of them into the boards together.
“You turn your back in the NHL, the game is too fast,” Cooke said. “But that doesn’t make a difference. I have to be the one to adjust.”
Cooke realized quickly after the McDonagh suspension — his sixth in the NHL — that he needed to change. His career was in jeopardy.
“[Shero] told me he didn’t know if the [Penguins] owners were going to tell him to get rid of me,” Cooke said.
“He told me if he could keep me, if I got suspended again, ‘You may not have a job at all, let alone with us.’
“I was already trying to make changes, but it was a wake-up call. I knew I needed to figure out the solution now or it’s not going to change. I was trying to make changes, and it wasn’t having an effect, so I needed do something different that guaranteed success.”
So far, so good.
The McDonagh incident was Cooke’s wake-up call. The Johnson incident better be Kaleta’s.
Sabres GM Darcy Regier should follow Shero’s lead and put Kaleta on notice. And Kaleta, being painted as a villain incapable of change, should probably give Cooke a call.
NHL Short Takes
This was the week for reckless hits in the NHL. Besides Patrick Kaleta’s hit on Jack Johnson, two players had to be removed from the ice on stretchers.
Max Lapierre, well-schooled in Vancouver as a super pest and motor mouth, now plays in St. Louis and crushed San Jose’s Dan Boyle from behind.
“Things like that happen, especially when idiots are idiots,” Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said.
Added San Jose’s Logan Couture: “After the first shift, he’s yelling at us from their bench that he’s coming after us, and then he does that. It’s pretty gutless.
“Then he turtles. Be a man if you hit like that. Don’t turtle and run behind the linesman.”
On Thursday, Colorado’s Cody McLeod nailed Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall with a similar hit. He faces a long suspension, something he should have gotten in 2011 when the NHL let him off the hook for doing the same thing to Jared Spurgeon.
Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis nearly missed Thursday’s game against the Wild because he took a Drew Doughty shot off the foot, triggering the age-old debate whether stars should play on the penalty kill.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper noted how Ryan Malone scored a goal off his foot in the same game against the Kings.
“What if he got hurt?” Cooper said. “Would people be saying you should not be in front of the net on a five-on-five? … The second we’re fearing a guy getting hurt on a blocked shot, we’re probably in the wrong sport.”
The Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers are all over the rumor mill. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos has reported that Sabres GM Darcy Regier’s job is on the line.
There are also reports the Oilers, who badly need a goalie, are pursuing Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. But Edmonton is on his no-trade list.
THE WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: vs. Nashville, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Thursday: vs. Carolina, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Saturday: at Chicago, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Player to watch:
Justin Faulk, Carolina
Justin Fontaine’s former Minnesota Duluth teammate might only be 21, but he is playing 25 minutes a night and already is considered Carolina’s best defenseman.
“There’s no consolation in us coming here and saying, ‘We outshot them, we outplayed them.’”
— Zach Parise after the Wild outshot Toronto 37-14 on Tuesday but lost 4-1.