Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Matt Cooke talks about the ups and downs of a 1,000-game career

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: March 11, 2014 - 1:48 PM

I will be hosting a live chat at www.startribune.com/wild at 2 p.m. CT and if you didn't see my previous blog, there's a Josh Harding update.

But when the Wild drops the puck on its game tonight against the Edmonton Oilers, Matt Cooke will play in his 1,000th regular-season game. He will become the 286th player in NHL history to hit the milestone and fourth to do so in a Wild sweater (Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen).

Cooke, 35, has scored 162 goals and 384 points in 999 games with a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes.

His first NHL game, first NHL goal and 1,000th game have come against Edmonton.

His career have been full of ups and downs, going from a super-pest (somebody many considered dirty) to reinventing himself after a 17-game suspension (including playoffs) for elbowing the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh on March 21, 2011. He knew that if he didn't change the way he played the game that he would be out of the NHL in a jiffy.

Nobody can watch him now with unbiased eyes and say he’s the same player he once was. I can tell you from my standpoint, I definitely had a previous perception about what kind of player Matt Cooke was (I was just reading two columns I wrote on Cooke after the McDonagh incident and a Nick Schultz kneeing incident) and thus what kind of person Cooke must be. My opinions have changed after watching him and talking to him for three-quarters of a season. I can tell you, from a teammate standpoint, he’s very much a respected leader in the Wild’s room. Some of the “kids,” like Charlie Coyle, were going on and on about Cooke today.

I know that doesn't change some of his previous acts and doesn't help guys like Marc Savard, but there's no doubt he's a different, much more effective player today than he was in yesteryear.

Cooke has 24 friends and family members in town to enjoy tonight’s game. His wife and three children will be on the ice with him when the Wild and NHL honors Cooke in the pregame.

Here’s a pretty candid Q and A with Cooke from this morning:

On 1,000 games: “It’s a huge accomplishment for me and my family. You don’t get here by yourself. I’ve had great people around me who have supported me through thick and thin. And I think those will be the things I think of during the ceremony.”

You don’t think about 1,000 games when drafted? “I’ll go back even farther than that. I was a 10th-round draft pick to junior (Windsor Spitfires), 144th overall. Crazy enough, I was a sixth-round pick, 144th overall in the NHL.”

How does a player drafted that late twice make it? “You don’t get hindered by the draft pick number. My biggest thing was at the end of the day when I leave training camp, I don’t want them to go, No. 46, who’s that? When they see my number or my name, I want them to have a visual image of what kind of player that is. I was fortunate enough to have some great coaching along the way to help me out. If you want your dream, work at it. Just because you’re a high draft pick doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it.”

How’d you go from a three- or four-minute a night guy who would run goalies to a 15-minute guy trusted on the ice late in games? “That was the [Mike] Keenan-[Marc] Crawford transition for sure. He put a lot of faith and trust in me, believed in the way that I played. His big thing was there’s a style of play that I play. For me to be most effective is to be underneath at least three or four guys’ skin and quite often that led with us skating around in the morning skate and him mentioning last names of players on the opposing team. But that also led me to playing 12 to 15 minutes a night and getting opportunities  with seconds left needing a tying goal. That gave me a lot of confidence and belief in the way I was playing.”

Have you thought that you would have gotten to 1,000 quicker without the suspensions? “In reality, I have 20 [regular season] games of suspensions, so it still would have been this year. I probably missed close to 100 games with injury and I spent the first two years half and half, which is another 80 games and a lockout and a half and that gets me to today. I can’t really look back. I can’t change any of that and that’s made me the person and player I am today. I’m thankful that I’m in a great organization to celebrate this with.”

Are you surprised how quickly Wild fans embraced a former detested Vancouver Canuck? “We all know the history that was there and we all know my interviews when I first signed here were not the most generously questioned, even by yourself (laughs), but I expected that. And I believed that with the Wild logo that they would appreciate me just as the fans in Vancouver did back then.”

And in Pittsburgh, you seemed to be beloved? “It’s a very blue-collar town, a very hard-working city and they love their sports there. I was fortunate to win a Cup there. I think anybody that’s done that there is an icon in that city and will be for the rest of their lives. That’s a cool place to be and it’s my goal to do that here.”

How gratifying is it that you admittedly reinvented yourself the past three years? “There’s been times throughout my career where you’re injured and you’re like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ But the last three years have been a lot of fun for me. With my change in approach has come a lot of realizations and understandings of emotions and events that happen in a game that I never even knew took place because I was putting myself somewhere else to be that player. So the last three years have made me feel like I have a lot more to give, and that’s fun for me, that’s exciting.”

Some fans and critics still look at you like the old Matt Cooke, like in Dallas with the tripping minor Saturday? “I’ve always been a guy that said people are going to have their opinions and they’re entitled to them. I don’t hold it against them. That’s their belief and understanding and that’s their right.”

Are you happy with your new approach? “Absolutely. I can go out and play 18 minutes fairly easily without feeling like I might not make it through the next week. Five years ago there’s no way I can do that with the stress I put on my brain and my body. I enjoy my teammates more, I enjoy the game more. Just everything is in a better place with me.”

Also, I talked to Erik Haula today about his major penalty on Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen this morning. I'll toss those quotes up on the blog later. Please join the chat in a matter of minutes.

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