A villain through much of his career, Matt Cooke changed his ways to change his image.
Ray Shero looked down at his buzzing smartphone and saw a concise message from NHL executive Colin Campbell.
“It said only, ‘My office, 11 o’clock tomorrow,’ … and I didn’t have to ask what it was about or who it was about,” the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager said.
Matt Cooke was being summoned to Toronto. It was March 20, 2011, and moments before that e-mail arrived, the NHL’s poster child for controversial hits messed up again. Six weeks after serving a four-game suspension for hitting Columbus’ Fedor Tyutin from behind, Cooke struck the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh in the chin with an elbow during a nationally televised game.
After years of issuing dirty hits in a league that was trying to reduce dangerous head shots, Cooke knew he opened the door for the league to make a statement.
As the hearing began, Cooke’s agent, Pat Morris, started to, as Cooke recalls, “pump my tires.”
He was a devoted husband to Michelle and father of Gabby, Reece and Jackson. He was philanthropic, starting the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope to benefit underprivileged women and children after the death of a niece at 38 weeks. He traveled to Haiti on humanitarian missions, doing countless other good deeds away from the public eye.
Cooke interrupted his loyal agent.
“I defended every suspension up to that point, every [questionable] hit: ‘I didn’t do it. I meant to do this. It wouldn’t have happened if …,’ ” Cooke said. “This one? No. The opinion of the game has changed, and I was trying to change within it. And I screwed up.
“I said to Colie, ‘My intentions were not to run him in the head. I can play over to you exactly how it happened, but at the end of the day, my elbow hit him in the head, I think we need to remove that from our game, so whatever you decide, I will accept.’ ”
A rap sheet
Cooke, who used to irritate Wild fans as an agitator on the rival Vancouver Canucks, signed a three-year, $7.5 million with the Wild on July 5. Overshadowed by Cooke’s list of infamous hits is that he is a veteran left winger who can score, kill penalties, skate and, of course, intimidate.
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo’s history with Cooke, 35, in Pittsburgh led to the signing.
“You know what you get from him every night,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think we’ll miss him more than some people think. Penalty kill, he’s capable of scoring 15 goals. He’s not a fun guy to play against. He can change the momentum of games.
“If you saw the way he played a few years ago with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy, we had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on our team, and at times that was our best line.”
The NHL wound up handing Cooke his sixth career suspension for the final 10 games of the 2010-11 season and the first round of the playoffs because of the McDonagh hit. The Penguins were eliminated by Tampa Bay in seven games.
During that time, Shero heard the outside chatter that it was time to dump Cooke. He met with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
“It always came back to, he won a Stanley Cup with us [in 2009] and had proved he can be an effective hockey player when he actually plays hockey,” Shero said. “I felt like I’m the one that signed him [twice]. For me to just wash my hands of him and make him somebody else’s problem wasn’t right.
“He knew it was his last chance. If he screwed up again, ‘You won’t be in the league, let alone Pittsburgh.’ ”