If hockey were real estate, you could say that last summer the Wild went searching for a house, something more sturdy than flashy, built more for day-to-day living than curb appeal.
If hockey were real estate, you could say that Matt Cooke was that house, a modest stone building featuring a freshly sodded lawn and a new, whitewashed, picket fence.
Here’s the problem: If Matt Cooke were a house, his basement would be filled with mold. Not hidden in the walls. Creeping up the stairs.
So when the Wild signed Cooke, after much due diligence and several walkthroughs, team management could blame only itself when the mold it saw in the basement eventually made the house unlivable.
Monday night, Cooke made like Benjamin Button. He reprised his career in reverse.
For the first 22 minutes, he played the kind of chippy-but-responsible game that has characterized his play over the past two regular seasons. He proved instrumental in shutting down Avalanche phenom Nathan MacKinnon, and in producing the Wild’s first playoff victory.
Then he made the kind of reprehensible play that earned him his reputation as one of the worst people in hockey. He took out the knee of talented Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie.
If it had been anybody other than Cooke, the Wild could have made excuses for the player, or called it an accident. But when General Manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo decided to bring Cooke to Minnesota, and vouched for him as a changed man, they had to know that they were employing a player who would present two problems for the franchise.
If Cooke played dirty, he would receive harsh punishments from the league and soil the reputations of Fletcher and Yeo, two good men who sometimes suffer from overeagerness.
If Cooke played clean, he would nevertheless be one questionable hit away from facing harsh punishment, leaving his team shorthanded, and calling into question the judgement and savvy of his bosses.
The player had been clean for three years, but the hit on Barrie was despicable. Yeo and Fletcher should feel naïve at best. At worst, they are culpable of enabling a recidivist and condoning a style of play that keeps the NHL with one skate firmly rooted in its Neanderthal past.
Even in one of the less-anticipated playoff matchups of this postseason, we have seen in the last week what allows the NHL to make the greatest transformation of any sport, from regular-season torpor to playoff exhilaration. We’ve seen an ideal blend of individual skill and team grit.
What we saw Monday night was one of the most thrilling games in Wild history … and a cheap play that will dominate coverage of this otherwise fascinating series when everyone should be continuing to collect forensic evidence of Mikael Granlund’s illusionist goal.
Tuesday, Yeo argued that he doesn’t send his players to “take out” opponents. I believe him. He’s not the man who ordered the hit or pulled the trigger; he’s simply the man who welcomed the offender into his home.
Unless you care only about the Wild’s fortunes, and form your opinions only on the basis of whose defenseman is getting gored, you can’t want Cooke in the league. He didn’t merely throw elbows. He sliced an Achilles, ran players from behind, and targeted opponents’ heads.
Facing the potential end of his career, and only because he faced the end of his career, Cooke changed his approach. He has not been suspended since March 2011. Wild management viewed his Darwinian instinct as a grand reformation. For more realistic humans, it’s sickening to see someone celebrated for not committing felonies.
Cooke carried with him a highly publicized rap sheet. The Wild ignored it. The Wild should pay for ignoring it. Cooke should be suspended well into next season.
If the NHL doesn’t make Cooke’s punishment prohibitive, the league will reward the Wild for signing a goon who took out a valuable opponent. If the league lets this pass, then all of its talk about player safety will be revealed as a ruse to avoid lawsuits, and nothing more.