As the hockey world awaits the fate of Matt Cooke for his knee-on-knee hit on Colorado's Tyson Barrie, it is perhaps worth taking a minute to think about the legacy that Cooke's career has shaped over the past decade or so. Upon doing so, one may discern certain obvious patterns - the object of this post. Think for a minute about what that word 'pattern' really means, for it connotes more than just repetition. Patterns are what organize us and regulate us - they are what define us, and ultimately, they are what define Matt Cooke, and his professional hockey career. Such patterns should have by now provided a window into the kind of player he has turned out to be at the NHL level; tell-tale signs which, in this humble blogger's opinion, reveal a dark but unshakeable truth.
Cooke's hit on Barrie Monday night was the latest in a long list of marring injuries that Cooke has left in his wake. Some of these injuries have been career-threatening, scattered throughout his career. Others, not so much. All of them, however, have been the direct result of careless and reckless plays on the part of Cooke. Having spent the better part of his NHL days playing the roles of energy player and agitator, Cooke clearly understood his position and responsibilities. However, too many times, for whatever reason, he has found himself in situations where he has taken said role too far.
Cooke suspension history actually began in 2004 when he was banned two games for spearing Minnesota's Matt Johnson. However, Cooke did not really begin raising eyebrows until the post-lockout era of the NHL, when he was handed a staggering six suspensions totalling 25 regular season games and 7 playoff games over a three-year period from 2009 through 2011. These were all the result of questionable plays to say the least, all of them of the dangerous hit variety. Despite this, the initial suspensions were relatively minute, never exceeding 4 games, until March of 2011 that is, when the NHL finally decided to throw the book at Cooke with a 17-game suspension for a blatant elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. At this point, everyone was aware of Matt Cooke and what he was capable of, and the NHL head office obviously wanted to send a strong message. Good young players were going down at the hands of one player, and the League was on its heels.
Following his sixth and lengthiest suspension, Cooke vowed to return to the ice a changed man. It became well noted that he took considerable steps to refine himself, his game and his style of play, and began being much more concerned with the on-ice play, rather than who was on it. Many people thusly point to Cooke's three years of suspension sobriety, so to speak, since 2011 as tangible proof of the new-and-improved Matt Cooke, a player who was obviously more acutely aware of his fellow players on the ice surface and more sensitive to their safety, as all players should be. However, in addition to the six documented suspensions, it should also be duly noted that it is really what Cooke went unpunished for that allows us to fully round out his character as a hockey player at the NHL level.
Those three suspension-free years for Matt Cooke were evidently far from being completely devoid of incidents and controversy, as Cooke's play continued to spawn more injuries whose extent were all dangerous and questionable to say the very least. A slice to the achilles tendon of Erik Karlsson here, a hit from behind on Adam McQuaid there. Throw in other hits on players like Sam Gagner and Matthew Lombardi, and you've got yourself a player who clearly underestimated what it would take to truly reform their game. Remember, this is the same player who also targeted the knees of a player in the twilight of his career in Mats Sundin. And of course, let's not forget what was arguably the dirtiest and most devastating hit Matt Cooke ever did administer: March 3rd, 2010. In what is now an infamous hit in the hockey lore, in the old Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Cooke delivered a shouldered blow to the head of Boston Bruins centreman Marc Savard. The result was catastrophic for Savard, who suffered head and spinal injuries which would limit him to a grand total of 25 games played in the four years since the hit. The career of one of the game's most dynamic centres, shattered in a split second. Remarkably enough, Cooke did not receive so much as a two minute penalty on the play, and would later end up not being suspended for the hit either, despite tell-tale replay angles evidently suggesting very draconian intents.
Whether all of these other incidents were deliberate or not is beside the point. The fact that they simply continued to happen in spite of a gruesome track record and a perpetrator going on the record to promise change indicates a dark and hard truth to swallow: the intent to injure has entrenched itself far too deep in Matt Cooke's game to ever truly be eradicated. The National Hockey League is very much a contest of survival of the fittest - everyone must perform what they do best in order to continue to have a job. In Matt Cooke's case, as much as he may want to change, that presence of inhibition is what has kept him in the League, and he knows it. Cooke's systematic targeting of high-profile players and difference-makers on the ice serves as testament to this fact. It is simply unrealistic to think that any number of League hearings and suspensions would ever alter that reality.
Injuries are an inherent part of the game of hockey. So much so that it is almost impossible to control for game-related injuries through any institutional means whatsoever. It is part of what drives the sport's incredibly competitive ethos. However, when it comes to Matt Cooke, in almost every one of his cases, we are talking about injuries that were just devastating; injuries that were career altering, at least temporarily for some, and career-ending, at least for one. Injuries that require months and even years of rehabilitation. Injuries which exact tremendous physical and psychological tolls on players. Injuries which can potentially inhibit the way certain players used to be able to play. Injuries which can change the entire complexion of a team's playoff run. Injuries which were the unequivocal result of reckless plays on the part of one player who was much too bent on inhibiting his opponents, and deliberately tried to injure them as a result. Quite simply put, Matt Cooke has single-handedly been the exactor of far too many dangerous hits that have caused far too many dangerous injuries to too many other players. That is his legacy. That is his pattern. When taking all of this into account, it have become more than evident for some observers that, for both his own safety and that of his fellow players, Matt Cooke needs to be suspended infinitely by the National Hockey League. He simply shouldn't be allowed back in. This constitutes that all-elusive precedent that the NHL has allegedly been trying to set for a number of years. The strongest possible message they can send is by indefinitely suspending a player from all player activities who many will argue has more than earned such a hefty price.
Many analysts, commentators, observers and fans will have opinions as to what extent Matt Cooke's latest suspension should set at, and the final verdict will undoubtedly draw both cheers and jeers alike. Ultimately, the League must decide on a solution that is best both for it and its players. Matt Cooke may be a National Hockey League player in every legitimate way, and have all his rights and interests as such protected by the NHLPA Charter.
So too, however, do the other 689 union members.