While the NHL is largely populated by good guys and “aw shucks” characters, the violent sport breeds a certain amount of pests and hitters who gain the ire of the general hockey populace. Few players can compete with the villainous reputation that Matt Cooke has developed with fans, writers and hockey people in general, though.
Despite possessing strong penalty killing chops (Cooke averaged 2:45 minute of shorthanded time per game in 2010-11) and the occasional bits of offensive flourish, Cooke is defined by the many dirty hits he’s delivered over the years. Much of the hate comes from his “legal” hit on Marc Savard during the 2009-10 season, but he’s been a repeat offender who received two different suspensions last season alone. It seemed like fans of other NHL teams brought up Cooke’s name mere moments after Penguins owner and former star Mario Lemieux complained about the New York Islanders’ conduct during that notorious February 11 “brawlfest.” His antics are seen as a black eye on the Penguins franchise, if not the sport as a whole.
That being said, there are glimpses of humanity even for a supposed “monster” like Cooke. HBO’s 24/7 series caught some adorable moments between Cooke and his son. Like many other hockey players, he seems like a far more mild mannered person once he’s off the ice – his image becomes more mixed when you consider his charitable work.
Perhaps most importantly, it sounds like Cooke is hoping to clean up his act. That’s something he discussed with the Altoona Mirror after being involved in ceremonial first pitch activities for Double-A baseball team the Altoona Curve this week.
Cooke’s list of on-ice transgressions may read like the average felon’s rap sheet, but at the end of last season, Cooke promised the Penguins and their president, former Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux, that he would change his ways.
“It’s a mentality, it’s how I’m going to approach the game,” Cooke said of his plan to clean up his act. “And the team has worked hard in supporting me to accomplish these minor tweaks in my game.”
Cooke told the media after the hit on McDonagh that “I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s not my intention. I know I can be better.”
Indeed, Cooke is a compassionate humanitarian off the ice. Cooke and his wife Michelle – who now live in Pittsburgh with their three children – run a charity known as The Cooke Family Foundation of Hope that operates in the Vancouver area and has raised thousands of dollars to help families and individuals facing a wide variety of life crises.
Technically, Cooke shot a “first puck” while his 7-year-old son Jackson threw out a first pitch. Here’s video of that unusual ceremony, found via Puck Daddy.
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When it comes to Cooke’s reputation in the eyes of many, the damage has already been done. The bottom line, however, is that Cooke will probably be around for a while; his current contract won’t expire until after the 2012-13 season. With that in mind, here’s hoping that Cooke changes his ways, because his previous “style” amounted to a lot of dangerous hits that frequently went over the line. Under all that ugliness, there’s an effective NHL hockey player – even if many will understandably find it difficult to forgive him for his past transgressions.