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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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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