Matt Cooke: The soul of an agitator

The Wild left wing has been called the dirtiest player in hockey, but he intends to prove the haters wrong

Matt Cooke: The soul of an agitator
Tony Nelson

Matt Cooke lifts a hockey stick above his head. In a dressing room in the Xcel Energy Center, lights flash against his taut forearms and biceps. He draws a smile nearly as wide as his neck and reveals a missing front tooth.

Give me a sneer, the photographer says. Cooke tries it, but when asked to take his shirt off, the Minnesota Wild's new forward draws the line.

"That's not me," Cooke says, his voice serious and soft. "I'm not a flashy guy like that."

Tony Nelson
Cooke with wife Michelle, daughter Reece, son Jackson, and pooch Braxton
Tony Nelson
Cooke with wife Michelle, daughter Reece, son Jackson, and pooch Braxton

The 35-year-old hockey vet has been called many names — bum, goon, rat, pest, dirtiest player in the NHL. He has also had the rule book rewritten in his dishonor.

Fans refer informally to Rule 48 — a prohibition against blindside hits — as the Cooke Rule. In March 2010, with about six minutes to go in the game, Cooke delivered a flying elbow to the head of the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard. Savard's body lifted and spun like a tetherball around an invisible pole.

Even one of Cooke's teammates, the Penguins' Bill Guerin, called for his suspension. "Guys don't mean to hurt each other, but they do," Guerin told reporters. "You got to pay a price for that."

In hockey parlance, Cooke is an agitator — a class of welterweights who, between making plays, intimidate the opposing team's players and provide space for star shooters to score.

"He's like a CIA spook," says Ross Bernstein, the Eagan-based author of The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. "You don't want to acknowledge them, but you have to have them for national security."

It's an inevitable consequence of hockey's unspoken "game within the game," and it puts Cooke in a precarious position every time he laces up. The speed at which hockey is played today blurs the line between what's acceptable hitting and what's reckless.

Many eyes will be on Cooke this week when he dons a Wild sweater for the first game of the regular season. He's out to prove that he's not the bad guy everyone thinks he is.

"I made it in the league for so long because I played a certain way," Cooke says. "And to play that way, I mentally — game in and out — had to put myself in another place to go out and do my job."

"Matt Cooke's stirring it up in Pittsburgh," the announcer says. "He's not slowing down, there's no way. That's part of his game."

It's November 8, 2008, and the Devils' Zach Parise has slashed Cooke one too many times tonight with his stick. When Cooke sees Parise about to end his shift, he sprints over to send a message.

It comes in the unmistakable form of a body check. The impact sends Parise over the bench, his skates dancing in the air. Righting himself, Parise slips and stumbles back onto the ice as though it's made of banana peels.

The former antagonists became teammates this July when Cooke signed a three-year contract with the Wild worth $7.5 million. His iPhone buzzed all night with congratulatory texts, but one in particular caught his eye.

"Hey Matt, Zach Parise here," the text read. "Happy to have you on board. Our team is on the way up and going to keep getting better. Let me know if you need anything in the meantime."

Happy for the hospitality, Cooke responded in kind.

"Thanks, I'll apologize in person for our run-ins in the past," he texted. "It was nothing personal."

Two months later, in the locker room, Cooke mentions the hit and the two men laugh as they shed their gear. When asked why he didn't like playing against Cooke, the Wild's star player snickers nervously.

"He was pretty dirty," Parise says. "He got under your skin, and he's got that ability to take your focus off of the game."

But he's quick to add: "That's a good trait to have and a good player for us to have."

In other words, Cooke has value so long as he's on your team. His presence on the bench means that the opposing players have to account for him at all times. But so, too, will the referees.

"He'll be in a tough spot," says David Singer, who runs the website Hockeyfights.com. "He'll just have to throw a lot of clean, hard hits."

With Cooke, the Wild are looking to do more than just replace Cal Clutterbuck, who compiled an NHL record 356 hits in 78 games during the 2008-09 season. The days of the true heavyweights are dwindling, and the team already has Zenon Konopka, one of the most penalized players in the league. Come playoff time, a guy who reeks of penalty minutes is likely to be a healthy scratch. Players are expected to wear more than a single hat.

"Has he taken head shots? Yes. Will he continue to do so? Probably," the author Bernstein says of Cooke. "But he's changed and he won't take as many dumb penalties. They know that bringing him in. They're paying a lot of money."

Cooke is already showing physical restraint. At the first exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he passed up an opportunity to cream defenseman Will Weber. There was just no telling which way Weber would go after the collision. But it was also a hit Cooke would have taken, even in the preseason, only a few years ago.

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