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

Both Wild head coach Mike Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher have ties to the Penguins organization and understand the qualities that make Cooke a desirable player. Pittsburgh was constrained by the salary cap and put him low on its list of priorities. Once he became a free agent, Minnesota scooped him up.

"He's now a player who you can count on, in critical situations in the game, to make the right play," Fletcher says. "He's well known for his physical style of play, but to me that's just sort of the icing on the cake."

Decades of smoking had finally caught up with the old man. Pale and emaciated, he seemed to be dissolving into the sheets of his hospital bed. Only his Army-issued flattop remained unchanged.

At home, Cooke trades his hockey stick for a blender
Tony Nelson
At home, Cooke trades his hockey stick for a blender
Matt Cooke on the ice
Courtesy of the MN Wild. Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn.
Matt Cooke on the ice

Even at 12, Matt knew that his grandfather, Robert David "R.D." Cooke, was dying. The boy was taking it hard. His relationship with his own father was strained, and the old man was his closest male role model.

Matt wanted to stay, but he had a hockey tournament to attend. His father dragged him away with the promise that he'd see the old man in two days when they got home.

In the car, Matt complained. While he was at the hospital, his grandfather hadn't woken up, so they hadn't had a chance to speak. The wheels rolled on.

The games they played weren't memorable. But in the locker room after the second day, Matt got a message that he would never forget: R.D. had just died.

He stayed there until the arena staff kicked him out.

"If I missed one game just to say goodbye to my grandfather, I don't think it would have changed my career," Cooke says today. "I took it hard and I didn't play."

Not playing was almost unthinkable. Hockey is the unofficial religion of Stirling, Ontario, a village of 1,800 that steeps its children in the feudal sport as soon as they can stand up on skates. Cooke first laced up at two. By six, he was traveling from town to town, bumping shoulders with eight- and nine-year-olds.

"That's just what everybody does," Cooke's brother Steve says. "Hockey is just such a big part of who you are when you grow up in it. Not that it makes you, but it plays such a big role in your life that you can't get rid of it."

After school in the winter, Matt would head down to the frozen mill pond, followed by his brother and friends. The town kept the ice clean by hitching a big blue brush to the front of a tractor. At home, the Cooke boys shared a tiny bedroom with R.D. and a gray poodle named Shadow.

But now that R.D. was gone, the sport had lost its luster for Cooke. His family and coach prodded him to put on his skates again. They took him for drives. It's not what your grandfather would've wanted, they argued. His death is not your fault.

After several weeks, Matt caved — he missed the game too much. He vowed to play in his grandfather's memory and came out swinging. During his rookie season with the Windsor Spitfires, a junior team with the Ontario Hockey League, he caught the eye of the new coach, Paul Gillis.

"He was just a ball of energy — very aggressive, very physical," Gillis remembers. "He proved that he should be on the team."

There was only one problem: Matt's style put other players in harm's way. Gillis pulled him off the bus one day as it was preparing to leave for the six-hour drive to Sault Ste. Marie. Cooke stood in the snow, shivering, as he got a lecture in good sportsmanship.

"You're playing in the OHL the way I played in the NHL," Gillis told Cooke. "You're gonna get there; just keep your elbows down."

The message got through, if only for the time being. Cooke ended the next year with 45 goals and 50 assists. It earned him a spot with the Canadian national junior team.

In late 1997, Cooke stepped off a plane in Finland and onto the world stage. The coach asked each of the team's players — guys who hardly knew one another — to dedicate the tournament to someone special in their lives.

With tears in his eyes, Matt uttered the words, "Robert David Cooke."

Cooke entered a bar in Belleville, Ontario, and approached Michelle Foley. She had come for a bridal shower after a 12-hour work day, and she stared at him curiously.

"Oh, you're the asshole from last summer," she said, turning her back.

He had screwed that one up on her uncle's boat. Cooke had just signed an NHL contract and he made sure that everyone knew it, including Michelle.

He would have a chance to make it up to her an hour later, when a fight broke out. Michelle's brother, Brandon, stood up to some boors who'd called his Indian friend a "Paki." One of them bloodied Brandon's nose. The bouncer tossed everyone outside.

Cooke had never met Brandon, but he rounded up several high school buddies to back him up. Michelle had already apologized for her curt greeting earlier. Now she urged Cooke not to fight.

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