It seems that lately not a week goes by without some debate or outrage over a hit. In the last year, the name that comes up more often than not is Matt Cooke. Once again, Cooke delivered a very blatant and dirty hit, this time to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke’s hit put the Penguins down a man for five minutes as he was ejected for the blow. During the course of the major penalty, the Pens were able to score once shorthanded but allowed two goals to swing the game in their favor.
This time around, his chicken-wing elbow to the back of McDonagh’s head comes during a high-profile game just days after the NHL’s general managers met in Florida to figure out what to do about further reducing blows to the head. Thankfully McDonagh wasn’t injured on the play, that’s the good news. The bad news is that Matt Cooke is continued to terrorize opponents on the ice with his brand of hockey. When not delivering cheap shots, Cooke is an excellent checking forward but today’s incident against the Rangers proves that he just doesn’t get it and the guy that’s going to have his hands full in dealing with him is Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.
After the Islanders-Penguins brawl in Long Island, Lemieux lambasted the league for not doing enough to protect its players. Lemieux was torn to shreds for his statements for his seeming ignorance that he employs a cheap shot artist of his own. Lemieux then later wrote a letter to Gary Bettman coming up with some very progressive ideas on how to improve punishment for dirty hits including fining teams large sums of money for keeping those players employed under their watch. In that letter, Lemieux owned up to the players of that ilk they have on their team, a nod to those critical of his first statement.
Now all those who clamored for Lemieux to recognize that his employment of Matt Cooke is part of the problem in the NHL have a loud voice again and rightfully so. For all the issues the league is having with players disrespecting each other and delivering questionable hits to one another Cooke is the poster boy for it all. From his boarding of Fedor Tyutin that earned him a four game suspension, to his hit on Ovechkin, and thinking back to his disgusting hit on Marc Savard a year ago the league hasn’t had this obvious of a pariah in its history.
The NHL has whiffed badly on previous instances on an alarmingly consistent basis to show that they give even half of a damn about player safety. For all the talk that went on at the GM meetings we’ve seen the league fail to take charge with their soft two-game punishment of Brad Marchand of the Bruins for connecting to the back of R.J. Umberger’s head with a blow and the failure to punish Patric Hornqvist of the Predators for his elbow on Boston’s Tyler Seguin. Two very dirty plays, two very head-scratching and soft penalties to both. This time around, the league has a lot to work with.
Cooke’s hit touches on a lot of things the league wants to eliminate from the game and makes him the perfect target for a message-sending landmark punishment:
- He delivered a blindside hit
- He delivered a blow to the head
- He targeted McDonagh’s head
- He’s a repeat offender
If all those things aren’t grounds for a major suspension, then there’s something inherently wrong with everything the league is doing when it comes to disciplining players.
The one guy who could make the debate over what the NHL will do irrelevant is Lemieux. If Lemieux believes in what he was preaching to the world in the wake of the Islanders thuggery against them, he’ll drop the hammer on Cooke himself before the NHL gets to. If Mario comes out and does that, he’ll set the example he was hoping to with his initial decree to the league. People respect Mario and if he takes a stand like that he’ll be an even bigger hero across the league.
We’re going to assume that the NHL’s response to Cooke’s hit will not be sufficient for most people. After all, how do you appropriately punish a player that’s escaped previous bans for any number of reasons and thus getting by on the NHL’s backwards logic that you’re essentially allowed one dirty play before you’re really punished. Cooke’s record looks virtually spotless considering he’s played over 800 games in the NHL and only been suspended for a total of 10 games in his career.
It seems that each time after he does something else foul we rush to yell that it’s an opportunity for the NHL to send a message to the rest of the players that wanton wretched play will not stand in the game. We’ve yet to be wowed by anything the league has done regarding other thugs and cheap shot artists and maybe for once the league can finally do something to be a positive influence instead of just talking about doing things the “right” way.