A wife in peril
At the time of the McDonagh incident, Cooke was dealing with weeks of stress. A day after the Winter Classic in January, his wife woke him up 3 a.m. seriously ill. She was hospitalized for the next 10 days.
Two days into it, Cooke was in Montreal when he got a call from the Penguins doctor to rush home. His wife was dying. A chaplain was called into the room to pray with their children.
A kidney stone one inch in diameter in Michelle’s left kidney lodged in her urethra.
“Her right kidney couldn’t keep up and was infecting her everywhere,” Cooke said. “It just kept getting worse and worse.”
It took four surgical procedures over several weeks to treat his wife, who couldn’t eat and was laid up for weeks. Over that time, Cooke had to juggle hockey with being there for his kids at every juncture — driving to school, cooking meals, bringing them to friends and practices.
“Afternoon gameday naps didn’t exist,” Cooke said. “I was playing but in another world. [Penguins coach Dan Bylsma] had to come down to me a few times during games and say, ‘You here right now?’ I’d be like, ‘Now I am.’ It was just cobwebs, like your brain was everywhere.”
Coincidentally, the first game Michelle was cleared to watch her husband play in person again was that March 20 game vs. the Rangers.
“It was unbelievable,” Cooke said. “[Brian] Boyle crossed the middle in that game. I let him off the hook because I was afraid something was going to go wrong. [Bryan] McCabe turns his back on one play and I grab him and don’t hit him, all situations where the year before I’d try to crush them.
“Then the McDonagh thing happens. I was going to hit him and at the last second I realize he has no idea I’m coming. Then I see that I’m about to run myself straight into the boards, so I put my arm up to protect myself. I skated off shaking my head because I was trying not to hammer somebody and still did.”
Toning it down
For years Cooke was taught to go for the biggest hit possible. He knew to stay in the league he had to be a pest.
“[In Vancouver], Mike Keenan would just kick me in the pants and say, ‘The goalie needs to be run,’ ” Cooke said.
During his suspension, Cooke watched hours of video with Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato, not just of his incidents, but any games.
“I felt if I don’t view the game differently, I’m not going to change,” Cooke said.
Shero says Cooke has transformed his game. In two years since the McDonagh incident, Cooke has amassed 80 penalty minutes in 130 games, no major penalties in the regular season and no suspensions. He’s not even considered a “repeat offender” by the NHL anymore.
“Rugby players beat the heck out of each other for 60 minutes. Punch each other in the face, kick each other with spike shoes, rip each other’s ears off,” Cooke said. “The only rule, when the whistle blows, the game’s over, and you go have a beer together.
“It’s about the game. I was always taught, ‘Don’t let him get you; get him before he gets you.’ It’s you vs. him, like survival of the fittest. But somewhere along the line, our game has changed, and I had to change with it.”