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.’ ”
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.”
Cooke knows because of his previous indiscretions, it’s impossible to change everybody’s opinion. He’ll have to continue to keep it clean; every shift all eyes are on him. He learned that last season when he was accused of intentionally slicing Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon with his skate.
“That’s asinine to think anyone can time that and be that precise with your skate and be that malicious, too,” Orpik said. “That’s not who he is.”
Shero said, “Matt Cooke has changed, and it didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of hard work. You won’t get a lot of sympathizers for Matt Cooke, but if you know the person, what he does to give back to the community and see what he’s been through personally and professionally, this is a great story. It’s amazing where he’s come in two years.”
Changing an image
Cooke, who is missing a tooth courtesy of the Los Angeles Kings’ Dustin Brown in 2006, says the biggest misconception about him is that he’s a mean guy.
“People meet me, and then go Google me, and I’ll see them again, and they’ll be like, ‘Woah, there’s not very nice things said about you,’ ” Cooke said, laughing. “I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, probably should have warned you.’ ”
Cooke doesn’t make excuses. He says the hardest thing is when his kids are told that their dad’s some kind of monster, a cheap-shot artist.
He’s trying to change that image. He’s devoted to his faith now, to being a good husband and dad. He sprinted out of Sunday’s scrimmage because his 9-year-old son, a budding baseball player, had a game.
Even though the Wild gave him permission to wear Derek Boogaard’s No. 24 — he’ll debut in a Wild sweater in Tuesday’s exhibition game against Columbus — he contacted Boogaard’s family first to get their blessing.
“My game on the ice is not me as a person, it’s not me in the community, it’s not me as a father,” Cooke said. “At the end of the day, this is my job. And it’s a great job, and I wouldn’t want any other one.
“But at some point, it’s going to end and I’m still going to be young when it ends. All the perks that happened quickly go away and what you have at the end of that is your family. That’s what matters most to me.”
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