For the past two weeks, almost every single weekday, Matt Cooke has skated hard at Braemar Ice Arena in Edina with several NHLers, including old Wild teammates Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and guys like Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Okposo, Derek Stepan, Dustin Byfuglien, James van Riemsdyk and Ryan McDonagh.
The only difference between him and many others is the veteran winger, who turns 37 on Labor Day, hasn’t latched onto an NHL team since being bought out of the final year of his contract by the Wild in June.
“This is the first time I’ve had to go through it,” Cooke said this week. “I knew it was coming. I just thought it might be after next year as opposed to this year, but it’s the cards that I’ve been dealt.
“I was hurt last year. There was some mismanagement on my [hip] injury, and part of that is my fault. It led to me getting hurt twice in one season. I’m 36 years old, I only played 30 games last year and then me getting bought out, that’s a tough scenario [to find a job].
“Patience is a virtue and right now all I’m doing is making sure I stay ready, that I get ready. We’re still three weeks away [from camp].”
Cooke says he’s healthy. He hired well-known fitness trainer Andy O’Brien (Sidney Crosby's trainer) this summer and flew to him several times in California and Toronto. He has been working with local skating coach Diane Ness all summer.
"Functionally, no one had gone over with me at all, I was all backwards because of my injury," Cooke said of his off-ice training. "My first five weeks I trained with Andy, I used no weights as I was getting things worked properly. It's amazing the work he’s done with me. His attention to details fixed a lot of things for me."
Cooke also feels his skating is night and day thanks to the work he has done with Ness.
Cooke hadn't talked publicly since getting that phone call June 18 from GM Chuck Fletcher.
"It was very brief," Cooke said of the conversation. "I wasn’t asking a lot of questions. He stated their decision was made because they had no other options."
The Wild was caught in a salary cap quandary and needed to clear space. The Wild owes Cooke two-thirds of his $3 million salary split into $1 million installments the next two seasons. The Wild will only be charged a $500,000 cap hit for Cooke this season as opposed to $2.5 million. The Wild's also also on the hook for a $1 million cap hit in 2016-17.
"It was a quick realization or a reminder that this is a business first," Cooke said. "When you don’t perform to what expectations are, situations happen. It was very different from the phone call that I got from Mike Yeo July 1 [two years ago] asking me to come here, that’s for sure."
If Cooke doesn’t land a job and this is the end of his career, he said he has no regrets.
“I’ve been blessed to play this game for 17 years and make a living out of it and provide opportunity for my family,” Cooke said. “I have fire in my belly, I still feel I can play, I worked hard to make sure if I get the opportunity that I can contribute to whatever team gives me a chance.
“If it doesn’t come into fruition, I’m not going to get upset. It’ll be an opportunity to spend time with my family 24/7 for the first time in awhile.”
Cooke has three children, two at home. He plans to stay in Minnesota regardless as his kids are in the Edina school system and are avid baseball and soccer players.
Even though one of his longtime assistant coaches won’t be on the ice for at least the first part of training camp, Mike Yeo said the Wild coaching staff will be fine dividing Darryl Sydor’s duties for the immediate future.
Yeo, at a company retreat at owner Craig Leipold’s Wisconsin summer home last week, was stunned when he learned of Sydor’s arrest for drunken driving with his 12-year-old son in the car. Yeo knew Sydor was in treatment for alcoholism last summer, but he watched Sydor work hard at his sobriety last season.
“He was great last year,” Yeo said. “Unfortunately he had a setback here, but I know he can get back to where he was last year. We just want to do everything we can to support him and give him a chance to get better.”
Sydor flew to California last Sunday to begin at least 30 days of inpatient treatment. He will miss at least a week of training camp, but his attorney has said it could be longer. The Wild hasn’t commented if Sydor will return to the team, although Yeo indicated he expected that to happen at some point.
“Once he gets through what he needs to get through, he’s going to have to figure out where he’s at,” Yeo said. “But I don’t see any reason why things would change.”
Yeo said there’s no plan to hire another assistant coach. He has three other assistants in Rick Wilson, Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette, and he said there are plenty of extra hands with goalie coach Bob Mason, Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir and even Iowa coach John Torchetti during training camp.
“We’ll be fine,” Yeo said. “My only focus is Darryl getting better right now. We care about him. I know he’s a good person. This is obviously a very big mistake and a real tough thing for him and his family, so I just want to be there for them right now.”
Former Wild and Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard is leaning toward retirement, but he’s not yet ready to make it official despite his latest concussion suffered Dec. 9 still causing symptoms.
“I’m just trying to get healthy,” Ballard said. “If I make a full recovery from this one, I’ll chalk it up to good luck. But I admit, if I’m hit like this again, I’m a little freaked out about what would happen the next time.”
If you remember, Ballard convulsed on the ice during that scary incident in December.
Jordan Leopold is also realistic about his future. He's not closing the door on playing again, but he also doesn't have his agent making phone calls to teams. If the Wild runs into injuries in camp, perhaps it'll call Leopold, but as of now he's expecting that this could be it as he and his wife are close to opening up an events and wedding center on the Bluffs of the Mississippi called Leopold's Mississippi Gardens. But again, he has not officially retired.
Thanks to all who came out to the Star Tribune porch this afternoon at the State Fair to chat with me.
A reminder: On Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the same porch, I'll be holding a Q&A with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. You will have the opportunity also to ask questions.