Is one of the NHL’s dirtiest players a victim of NHL “Culture”?
In April of 2010, during the first round of the playoffs, Adam Proteau of The Hockey News took on the subject of one of the NHL’s villains in his post, “THN.com Playoff Blog: What to Make of Matt Cooke.” In the article Proteau writes, “One part of me was pleased to see Cooke enjoy some personal success after his deplorable hit on Boston’s Marc Savard caused some to paint him as the worst of hockey’s bad eggs.” This is not the first, nor the last time Proteau elects to cast blame for Cooke’s disgusting approach to the game as someone else’s fault. Proteau goes on to say, “He isn’t the most beloved guy in the league – or even on his own team – but Cooke’s envelope-pushing actions and non-existent punishment are mere manifestations of the NHL’s absentee landlord supplementary discipline culture and he shouldn’t be forever cast as a Boogeyman beyond salvation.”
Not only is Matt Cooke a boogeyman beyond salvation, he chooses to play that way, and despite doling out a viciously dirty hit with the clear attempt to injure, he has not seen the error of his ways. In fact it’s not the first, nor the last time Cooke has injured a fellow NHL’er with hits that have no place in the game. Want a list? Here are a few: An elbow to the head of Anisimov in 2009, which is oddly reminiscent of the hit on Savard, after the puck is well gone, and all eyes (especially those of the officials) are following the puck. Of course Cooke doesn’t always aim for the head. His knee-on-knee collisions were known throughout the league in 2009 with notable victims, Zach Bogosian and Erik Cole. The knee-on-knee hits don’t produce the same life-altering results as the headshots, which is perhaps why they draw so little attention. But they are a clear indication of how little respect Cooke has for his fellow NHL players and the honest way that one of the toughest games on the planet is supposed to be played. How about Cooke on Gilbert (Oilers) in 2008, or the butt-end into the back of Markov? In the 2009 playoffs, Cooke ousted Cole. Then in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while laying on the ice, Cooke attempts to kick Wings’ netminder Chris Osgood in the head, landing only a glancing blow with no penalty.
Proteau choosing to blame the NHL’s lack of consistent discipline for Cooke’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of his fellow players is not only sickening, but it completely relieves Cooke of any responsibility and absolves him of blame. So despite the fact he knows it is clearly wrong, the fact, according to Proteau, is that Cooke is a poor misguided soul who is a product of the current NHL culture.
In March 2010, Steve Stamkos hits Matt Cooke cleanly with an open ice check, with Cooke in a vulnerable position, reaching for the puck. Now, the gospel according to Proteau: Stamkos is the product of the same hockey culture as Cooke, but refrained from taking the opportunity for the same head shot Cooke has delivered not once, but a multitude of times. What could that possibly mean? Perhaps Stamkos has a greater respect for the game or his opponent than Cooke? Or perhaps it isn’t as much the “culture” of the NHL as it is the “class” of the player.
So despite the mountains of evidence that Matt Cooke is one of the dirtiest players in the NHL, Adam Proteau would like to give him a pass, or does he? He insists though his tweets that the NHL desperately needs to clean up the head shots in the game. He also insists that players are of course responsible for their own actions, but they shouldn’t be considered villains despite repeated acts of debauchery. So which is it? Is it the NHL’s responsibility alone to ensure player safety, or do the players, coaches, and management share in that responsibility?
Is Matt Cooke the lone perpetrator of the head shot? Absolutely not. Just do a quick search on YouTube for evidence that he is not alone. So why did Proteau seek to “in a sense” make his actions defensible? Heck in his own article last year he claims that Cooke should have been punished: “This is why chief NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell’s cockamamie decision not to punish Cooke is so damaging. Because of it, the Bruins and their supporters will have a lasting, legitimate grudge to hold against the league if Boston winds up losing the series to Buffalo.” Here’s the rub, Bruins fans aren’t the only ones with a grudge. The entire NHL should have had its fill of Matt Cooke by now, including the Penguins. His play is reckless and after his hit on Savard, the lack of response from the league was as equally disappointing as the unwillingness of his teammates to state the obvious, the hit was dirty. Instead hockey was treated to this gem by Cooke’s captain, Sidney Crosby, “At some point there’s got to be a clear indication from the league because we’ve seen this so many times now. You don’t like to see anyone, their own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that. That was scary.”
Last year the excuse was there wasn’t a rule that prevented Cooke from intentionally seeking out opportunities to injure players with hits to the head. Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that Cooke graduated from knee-on-knee contact to head shots because he was actually penalized and suspended for kneeing. But because there wasn’t a clear rule about head shots (despite the core principle against “intent to injure” which has existed in the league for eons), it was instead the culture of the game which pushed Cooke to look for vulnerable players whose eyes were following their pass, or skating without an awareness of where he might be lurking.
So now there is a poorly worded attempt to keep players from trying to take each other’s heads off. That should fix everything, right? Bruins forward Dan Paille did not make any attempt to hold up on his hit on vulnerable Stars’ rookie Ray Sawada, who fumbled with the puck on a rush in the Bruins’ zone. Back-checking Paille delivered a hit which initially made contact with the rookie’s shoulder but followed through with an elbow to the head. Saward suffered a separated shoulder and broken nose, and Paille will sit with a 4-game suspension. Unlike Crosby’s politically correct response when asked about Cooke’s blatant intent to injure Savard, Bruins’ veteran defenseman Andrew Ference stated it was a bad hit, and what the NHL is trying to remove from the game.
All the while Proteau tweets about “touchy” Bruins fans taking his remarks out of context and “warping” his remarks. While Proteau, as a member of the hockey media, likely sees himself as a bastion for change in NHL culture, he is actually a reflection of the same inconsistency he likes to lay at the feet of the NHL disciplinarians. There is plenty of blame to go around: equipment changes, coaches and GM’s who employ players and tactics which encourage players like Cooke to disturb and get into the heads of the league’s elite. However, failing to recognize that Cooke is in no way (never mind “in a sense”) a victim is akin to the same damage caused by “Campbell’s cockamamie decision not to punish Cooke” from Proteau’s article last year.
The Bruins could have easily done the hypocritical dance which many teams do when one of their own crosses the line, but they did not. They immediately recognized there would likely be a suspension, and being one of the most outspoken teams against head shots perhaps even upped the ante for the league office. However, they have also been outspoken, and Ference’s remarks are a refreshing sign that the “Culture” which Proteau conveniently blames is actually changing.
No one wants to see hitting eliminated from hockey. No one. Not the players, the fans, nor the media. What we all want is for there to be an acceptable risk for players, and that does not include having players who take liberties with the lives of their fellow players, and continue to play on the edge of the rules waiting for punishment to deter them. If Matt Cooke requires chapter and verse to know what is a dirty hit and what is not, then he has no place on the ice with players who are able to make that determination. Cooke is a dirty player, plain and simple. He did not make an error in judgment when he hit Marc Savard, and I do not believe he has lost a minute’s sleep over his role in Savard’s career being decimated. Daniel Paille is not in the same class as Cooke, and neither are the handful of other offending players likely to receive Rule 48 suspensions. However, I am not foolish enough to believe there aren’t Matt Cookes-in-training in the AHL, and currently in the NHL, which is exactly why Proteau’s eagerness to give Cooke an out is so grotesque.
Watching Cooke jump on a player pinned down by a linesman to get in a few extra shots during a fight against the Sabres this week tells me he is well beyond salvation. Yet sadly, just prior to yet another predictably despicable display, he scored the GWG on a beautiful move in front of Ryan Miller; proving he really does not need to stoop to the level of villain, but embraces his role. For this, there is no place for him in the NHL. There is only one solution, and it is not in the hands of the NHL’s disciplinary policies and suspensions. It is in the hands of the owners, general managers, coaches, and players. There will always be tough, honest players in the NHL, and the game needs them; look no further than Shawn Thornton, as an example, and he and Cooke should not even be mentioned in the same breath. The day NHL owners and general managers value having players like Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard, and Steven Stamkos on the ice more than the “element” Cooke can deliver, then things will again be in balance in the League. Only one problem, he will likely get a job coaching in the O, or the AHL, or someplace where he can “educate” young players.
If Proteau and other members of the media want to be a part of the solution, then write more stories about the journeymen NHLers who toil in anonymity while playing the game with grit and class and stop painting a sympathetic picture of those who soil the game.