Last month Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said, “If Matt Cooke can change, anybody can change.”
Cooke agrees. The Wild forward has long been considered everything from a headhunter to a cheap-shot artist, but after concussing the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh and getting dinged with a 17-game suspension in 2011, Cooke worked hard to change the way he played the game.
In 139 regular-season games since, Cooke has accumulated 84 penalty minutes, no major penalties and no suspensions.
That’s why Cooke offered his rehabilitation services to Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta when he saw the forward waiting for former teammate Jason Pominville after Monday’s Wild-Sabres game.
Cooke had never met Kaleta, but he’s been in his shoes. Cooke knew Kaleta was a day away from an in-person hearing with the NHL for checking Columbus’ Jack Johnson in the head.
Kaleta, long vilified as one of the league’s dirtiest players, has since been suspended 10 games, which he is appealing.
“I think he’s got to understand the position he’s in,” Cooke said. “It’s not fun, it’s lonely. If he doesn’t want to change, it’s not going to happen no matter how much everybody wants to help. It’s got to come from within. That’s the deal. It’s not easy. It’s not just snap your finger and the change happens.”
So Cooke told Kaleta if he wanted to ever hear what Cooke did to change, he should feel free to reach out to him.
For Cooke, it began with hours of video with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato.
“The video helped me retrain my brain to visually see the game different,” Cooke said. “Instead of, ‘That guy has the puck, go get the biggest hit possible,’ it’s now, ‘Is he right- or left-handed, where are the boards, what are his tendencies?’ That has to happen fast on the ice.
“So I’d watch hockey games. Not of me. Just games. I’d watch a play and as soon as a guy gets the puck, stop. ‘What should I be doing?’ Then play, stop, play, stop. What I realized, there’s so many high-risk plays every game that are split seconds from being so bad, you can never even imagine. But say a guy like [the Rangers’ Ryan] Callahan, he plays physical, but he’s safe and responsible.”
Cooke tries to play that way now. There have been plenty of examples already this short season where years ago Cooke probably would have pasted a player to the boards.
Now, he peels off, tries to proceed on the side of caution.
In Buffalo on Monday, Cooke was skating in to check defenseman Mike Weber. At the last second, Weber turned his back to Cooke. Cooke couldn’t stop, but instead of boarding Weber, Cooke reacted by bear-hugging Weber, holding him up and riding the two of them into the boards together.
“You turn your back in the NHL, the game is too fast,” Cooke said. “But that doesn’t make a difference. I have to be the one to adjust.”
Cooke realized quickly after the McDonagh suspension — his sixth in the NHL — that he needed to change. His career was in jeopardy.
“[Shero] told me he didn’t know if the [Penguins] owners were going to tell him to get rid of me,” Cooke said.
“He told me if he could keep me, if I got suspended again, ‘You may not have a job at all, let alone with us.’