Wild newcomer Cooke working to change his bad-boy image

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2013 - 12:37 PM

A villain through much of his career, Matt Cooke changed his ways to change his image.

hide

New Minnesota Wild arrival Matt Cooke met the local media Wednesday and modeled his jersey #24 that was previously worn by Derek Boogaard. (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE(mlevison@startribune.com

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.”







 

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Buffalo 12:00 PM
New England
Cleveland 12:00 PM
Baltimore
Dallas 12:00 PM
Washington
Indianapolis 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Jacksonville 12:00 PM
Houston
San Diego 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12:00 PM
Miami
Chicago 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Philadelphia 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Carolina 3:25 PM
Atlanta
Detroit 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Oakland 3:25 PM
Denver
Arizona 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 3:25 PM
Seattle
Cincinnati 7:30 PM
Pittsburgh
TBA 1/3/15 2:00 AM
TBA
TBA 1/3/15 2:00 AM
TBA
Toronto 110 FINAL
LA Clippers 98
Boston 88 FINAL
Washington 101
Orlando 102 FINAL
Charlotte 94
Memphis 103 FINAL
Miami 95
Indiana 110 FINAL
Brooklyn 85
New Orleans 100 FINAL
Chicago 107
Atlanta 90 FINAL
Milwaukee 85
Philadelphia 71 FINAL
Utah 88
New York 129 FINAL
Sacramento 135
Minnesota 97 FINAL
Golden State 110
NY Islanders 3 FINAL(SO)
Buffalo 4
Detroit 3 FINAL(OT)
Ottawa 2
Carolina 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 2
New Jersey 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 3
Boston 2 FINAL
Columbus 6
Winnipeg 4 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 3
Washington 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 0
Dallas 4 FINAL
St. Louis 3
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Nashville 4
Anaheim 1 FINAL(SO)
Arizona 2
Chicago 5 FINAL
Colorado 2
Edmonton 1 FINAL
Calgary 4
San Jose 1 FINAL
Los Angeles 3
Indiana 87 FINAL
Georgetown 91
Maine 43 FINAL
Seton Hall 72
UNC-Wilmington 82 FINAL
Minnesota 108
Georgia State 61 FINAL
Green Bay 78
Jacksonville St 61 FINAL
Jacksonville 75
Kentucky 58 FINAL
Louisville 50
Northern Ky 55 FINAL
Northwestern 76
UAB 58 FINAL
North Carolina 89
IUPUI 55 FINAL
Pepperdine 53
Santa Clara 60 FINAL
St Marys-CA 73
Oakland 56 FINAL
Maryland 72
Gonzaga 87 FINAL
BYU 80
Mercer 77 FINAL
Georgia 86
San Francisco 77 FINAL
Pacific 71
Wright State 55 FINAL
Ohio State 100
Presbyterian 65 FINAL
Virginia Tech 87
Brescia 42 FINAL
Western Ky 89
Tennessee St 46 FINAL
Tennessee 67
Kennesaw St 45 FINAL
Illinois 93
Colorado State 58 FINAL
New Mexico St 57
Portland 61 FINAL
San Diego 58
Wayland Baptist 63 FINAL
Utah State 75
Bristol University 59 FINAL
Weber State 109
Sacramento St 74 FINAL
Utah Valley U 49
Southern Utah 45 FINAL
UNLV 79
SD Christian 50 FINAL
San Diego St 72
Illinois 18 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 35
Rutgers 40 FINAL
North Carolina 21
NC State 34 FINAL
UCF 27
Cincinnati 17 FINAL
Virginia Tech 33
(15) Arizona State 36 FINAL
Duke 31
Miami-Florida 21 FINAL
So Carolina 24
Boston College 30 FINAL
Penn State 31
(25) Nebraska 42 FINAL
(24) USC 45
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Texas
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
Stanford
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
(19) Auburn 1/1/15 11:00 AM
(17) Wisconsin
(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
Minnesota
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Houston 1/2/15 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Iowa 1/2/15 2:20 PM
Tennessee
(11) Kansas State 1/2/15 5:45 PM
(14) UCLA
Washington 1/2/15 9:15 PM
Oklahoma State
East Carolina 1/3/15 11:00 AM
Florida
SMU 45 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 96
UCF 64 FINAL
Houston 50
BYU 62 FINAL
Gonzaga 78
Pacific 92 FINAL
San Francisco 54
St Marys-CA 62 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
San Diego 87 FINAL
Portland 65
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is your favorite pro sports coach in the Twin Cities?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close