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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14 comments
peterjasonmn
peterjasonmn

And then he goes & gets the first goal of the year for the Wild.

conanwong
conanwong

Oh sure, the online edition of this article says Ford Mustang but the print edition says its a Chevy Mustang.

LuteFisk
LuteFisk

Welcome to MN Mr. Cooke, You're going to do great things. GO WILD!!!

MicheleBachmann
MicheleBachmann topcommenter

Where is the puff piece about Shabazz Muhammad?   That 19 year old kid has gotten nothing but negative posts yet here we get a puff piece about a violent goon like Matt Cooke.   Shabazz Muhammad doesn't try to injury people yet all you white sports writers have to say is negative stuff about him.   Care to explain this?   The first story about Shabazz Muhammad was a negative story about his past, why wasn't the first story about Matt Cooke all about all the bad stuff he has done?  I know you mention his past but you excuse it and paint him as sympathetic as possible.  Why don't you do the same for Shabazz Muhammad?   Don't you think your editor has some explaining to do why his all white sports staff seems to cover black athletes so differently than white ones?   

Ohplease
Ohplease

@MicheleBachmannWhy isnt there a puff piece? Maybe its because he plays for the NBA and no one gives a shit about the NBA! Plus he is 20 yrs old, sucks ass at playing defense (Which is why he should fit well in the NBA cuz no one plays defense anyway) and he has a reputation of being a goon. Matt Cooke does too and doesnt apologize for it.. And quit with all the "white sports writer" crap  Race has nothing to do with this, but thanks for being a douche bag and trying to make it about race....typical. Did anyone mention his name is Shabazz!!!....poor kid.

MicheleBachmann
MicheleBachmann topcommenter

@Ohplease  Shabazz isn't a goon.  His rep has been trashed by white sportswriters who are hellbent at painting young black kids as bad guys while making excuses for violent scum like Matt Cooke.  This whole piece is a puff piece designed to make Matt Cooke look good.  Oh his poor wife.  Oh he's a Christian.   He's a criminal.   His hits are dirty and intend to injury.  The Wild should be called out for having him on the team.  He hurts the NHL.   Injurying Erik Kaarlson last year hurt the league.   


Finally you are such a fucking idiot.  The NHL is falling behind soccer.  Everyone knows who Lebron James is.  No one knows who Sidney Crosby is except for Canadians and dumb fools like you who make excuses for scum like Matt Cooke.   Once again you are nothing but a stupid fucking idiot who knows nothing about the NBA or the NHL.  Goons like Matt Cooke are a dime a dozen.  Instead of paying him so much the Wild could have signed a goon for the league minimum.   The money spent on Cooke should have been used to upgrade at goalie.  They sent Zucker down idiot, they didn't need a crappy goon forward like Cooke.   Now they will have a weak goalie who isn't good enough to get the Wild past all the tough teams they face in their new division.  They will miss the playoffs so enjoy that idiot.  Hope watching Matt Cooke cheapshot someone is worth that.   

williamcarllindsey
williamcarllindsey

@MicheleBachmann Wow. Trashing someone who you think is violent by using incendiary, violent rhetoric. Is that supposed to be ironic? I take several issues with your statements. I will respond to each: 

- Hockey is a contact sport, where fist fights are not only allowed (with the penalty being a measly 5:00 minor that doesn't affect the team whatsoever), they are encouraged. Basketball is not a contact sport and it highly discourages players from engaging in fisticuffs. The nature of the NHL requires teams to acquire "goons" and intimidating players in order to compete. A team full of nimble fast skaters isn't going to get you very far in the NHL.

- Sure, Cooke has made some questionable in-game decisions, but he hasn't been banned from the league, nor should he be. Why should the Wild be "called out" for acquiring him? He is an eligible skater. 

-  This is Minnesota. The State of Hockey. Not the State of Basketball. We have the fucking Timberwolves to represent us in the NBA. Last I checked, they suck. A lot. Hence: nobody (at least in MN) gives a shit about the NBA. And apparently YOU know who Sidney Crosby is, so does that make you a dumb fool? Or a Canadian? 

-  As the article points out, Cooke is more than just a goon, he plays a multi-faceted game and is valuable in more ways than one (i.e. fluke or not, he tallied the first Wild goal of the season last night). Derek Boogaard (RIP) was a goon in the true sense. He was pretty much worthless on the ice aside from his ability to intimidate (and his ability to beat the shit out of people). And he was also one of the nicest, hardworking and well-loved hockey players off of the ice. Boogaard was often cheered and lauded for his brutal efforts, even earning himself the nickname "The Boogeyman." Remember, this is a job for these players. A job that Cooke does well. And a job that Shabazz has very little respect for at this point and appears to not take very seriously. 

- The last point I will attempt to make sense of is your notion that there is some sort of conspiracy against black athletes by white sports writers. I assure you, there isn't. The difference between Shabazz and Cooke is that Shabazz has issues OFF the court, as well as on it. Cooke is an experienced professional, with a loving family, out there doing his job WELL. Shabazz is a rookie kid who shows disrespect for the system, disregard for authority and had to lie about his age so he could play at a lower level. In your mind, sports writers look at that and say, "YES! Another great opportunity to smear a young black kids career by painting him in a bad light." No, that's not how it works. Shabazz did that to himself. Furthermore, why would Minnesotan sports writers attempt to purposefully and dishonestly smear the image of a top prospect who represents their home team? Answer: they wouldn't, you paranoid fuckwad. 

The end. 

smokescreen
smokescreen

@MicheleBachmann @Ohplease

I hesitate to respond because you obviously have issues with anger, paranoia, racism, and narcissism. But I can't help myself. You are out of your mind if you are seriously implying that every white sports writer wants to paint black athletes as criminals. Is there some kind of conspiracy? If so, do they have meetings? According to your logic the white sports writers must think the strongly disliked Johnny Manziel is actually black and media darling RG3 white. Last time I checked many, if not most, of the most celebrated athletes in the US are black and almost none of them are ever called criminals. Exaggerating to make a point does not strengthen your argument. In stead, it does the opposite. It hurts your credibility. And taking a few isolated examples while ignoring the majority makes you look ignorant. Good luck with your emotional problems.

 
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