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

"Don't worry," he told her. "I'm not fighting."

In the parking lot, Cooke found Brandon outnumbered, with his back up against a car. The ensuing violence had an organized chain of command. Cooke pointed to the guy punching Brandon; Cooke's buddy grabbed him by the throat and slammed him on the ground.

The gang saw Cooke's face and dispersed. Cooke went back into the bar and offered Michelle a ride in his black-and-tan Eddie Bauer Expedition.

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

"You brought your dad's van to the bar?" she asked, incredulous.

"First of all, it's a truck," Cooke said. "Second of all, it's mine."

When he saw her next, she asked why he hadn't called. He insisted that he had — many times — but apparently Michelle's mother, Trudy, hadn't seen fit to relay the messages. Eventually, Cooke wore her down.

"You just get to know him," Trudy says today, "and there's nothing bad."

Michelle gave birth to Reece Lynn in May 2001. The couple married that summer in Belleville and soon the family settled, along with Michelle's first daughter, Gabby, in Vancouver, where Cooke was playing for the Canucks.

It was there that Cooke solidified his reputation as a physical yet offensive player and helped turn a shaky franchise into a regular Northwest Division Title contender. Shortly after the birth of his son Jackson in 2004, Cooke was promoted to the Canucks' top line for the final 13 games of the season and the playoffs against the Calgary Flames.

"He is the horsepower, and the power behind your team," says Marc Crawford, Cooke's coach for seven of his nine seasons with the Canucks. "And all the skilled pieces get to do their thing because of the power that he had."

Scott Walker never saw it coming. He had just passed the puck to a Carolina Hurricanes teammate when an unseen force slammed him to the ground. Cooke's shoulder had grazed Walker's, then nailed him in the face.

Back on his feet, Walker quickly figured out who'd hit him and went for his revenge. A linesman cut him off and dragged him away.

Cooke took it all in, looking dumbfounded, as if he had no idea what he had done wrong. The refs gave him a minor penalty for interference. The NHL later reviewed the tape and handed down a two-game suspension, which surprised more than a few commentators.

"My guess is that the league is making good on a promise to take a closer look at hits to the head," Paul Branecky wrote on the Hurricanes' website, "and if that's the case, good for them."

Cooke put his shoulders to better use in the run-up to the 2009 playoffs and ended the season with 31 points, his highest in seven years. In the blistering last game of the finals against the Detroit Red Wings, Cooke had a breakaway run on the goal but was blocked, then shoved from behind.

After the Penguins' 2-1 victory, Cooke lifted the Stanley Cup above his head, pressing his lips to the silver chalice. Exhausted, he felt the skates buckling beneath his feet and quickly passed the trophy along. He'd been dreaming about that moment since he was a boy.

"I had it for three seconds and gave it back," he says, smiling at the memory.

Cooke fought the urge to get the cup tattooed on his body, like so many love-drunk players before him. Instead, he got the initials of his wife and kids on his wrist. He also designed a cross, but the artist refused to put it on his forearm because it'd look upside down to passersby.

Okay, Cooke reasoned. It's either the inner arm or the ribs. Which one hurts more?

The artist said the ribs.

"Perfect," Cooke said. "We'll start there."

Later that summer, Cooke packed the Stanley Cup into a silver Ford Mustang. While his friends and family prepared champagne at the cottage, he and Michelle slipped out.

They stopped at the home of Barry Wilson, the arena manager of the Stirling-Rawdon Recreation Centre who used to call Cooke when the ice was empty so that the boy could get in extra time. Cooke called out to Wilson from his porch. "I've got something for you to see out here."

Wilson exited without a shirt, but when he saw the cup, he quickly retreated to find clothes.

Two years later, Wilson's funeral would draw a thousand people. Before he died, he told anyone who would listen about the time Matt Cooke had delivered hockey's Holy Grail to his door.

"It was a highlight of his life," says his wife, Kathy.

But Cooke had one more promise to fulfill. The Mustang passed the mill pond where he and his little brother used to skate until dusk. He cut the engine along the side of the road, near a quiet stretch of grass, and set the cup down next to a headstone.

Crouching at his grandfather's grave, Cooke whispered, "We did it."

In the darkness, Cooke awoke to the sound of his wife's voice: "We need to go to the hospital."

She'd gone to bed that night with an aching back, but now it sounded more serious. Cooke rounded up the kids and drove the family to the medical center. Once there, doctors hooked Michelle up to an IV and admitted her for what they believed was a simple kidney infection.

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