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

Cooke waited for as long as he could, but he was due at practice in a few hours.

For two days in January 2011, Cooke split his time between the hospital and the rink. He played a game in Pittsburgh, then flew to Montreal for another. The next morning, he called the doctor to check in.

Drop what you're doing and come home, the doctor said. It's not good.

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

Michelle looked agonized and swollen, immobile in her hospital bed. More testing revealed a kidney stone the size of a walnut blocking her urethra. Bacteria overtook her left kidney and impinged on her diaphragm and lungs. A chaplain prayed with her and the kids.

Surgeons rushed to insert a stent and pass the stone down to her bladder. Over the next week, while the fluid drained from her lungs, she relied on a breathing apparatus.

At home, the extended family pitched in, but Cooke essentially took on the role of full-time parent. He cooked, dressed the kids and carted them to and from school, helped with homework at night, and sacrificed his pregame naps.

"Hockey was the last thing on his mind," his brother Steve says.

On the ice, Cooke couldn't seem to stay out of trouble.

First, there was an incident with the Washington Capitals in early February. The Penguins were down two points with about four minutes to go in the third period when Cooke clipped skates with Alex Ovechkin. The Russian phenom faceplanted, stunning the home crowd. All of the players on the ice converged around Cooke, leaving a trail of gloves and sticks.

"It was Matt Cooke. Need we say more?" Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said in a postgame press conference. "It's not like it's his first rodeo."

Two days later came a mind-numbingly hard hit on the Columbus Blue Jackets' Fedor Tyutin. While chasing a puck into the defensive zone, Tyutin looked over his shoulder and stopped about a foot from the boards. Not slowing down, Cooke rammed him face-first into the glass.

"I was taught if someone's coming, you get them first," Cooke explains, "or get against the boards, because the board's gonna take all the momentum."

NHL disciplinarians met the next day to hand down a four-game suspension, but it wasn't stiff enough for some. What Cooke really needed, critics suggested, was a little frontier-style justice. One radio host, a former player, declared open season on Cooke's head.

Normally, Cooke would have been the first to tell his wife about his troubles. But for weeks she'd been undergoing lithotripsy, a series of shock waves intended to pulverize the kidney stone. Watching her struggling through the pain, Cooke decided to spare her the news.

Slowly, her strength returned. Cooke skated onto the ice on March 20 knowing that, somewhere in the stands, his wife was watching.

He had resolved privately to avoid dangerous hits. When the New York Rangers' Brian Boyle cut across center ice, he emerged unscathed. Twice, Cooke backed off Bryan McCabe while chasing a puck into the defensive zone. Cooke remembers shouting at McCabe, "You know that I'm coming and you choose to turn your back on me!"

But when he spotted Ryan McDonagh close to the boards with the puck, the temptation was too strong. Cooke sprinted to get there and caught McDonagh square on the chin with a high elbow. McDonagh dropped to his knees, clutching his face.

Wasting no time, Cooke headed straight to the locker room. Casting a glance over his shoulder, he flashed the hollow expression of a defeated man.

It would be Cooke's longest suspension to date — 17 games, including the first round of the playoffs.

Cooke says he didn't intend to hit McDonagh, at least not like that. At the last second, Cooke tried to bail out and raised his forearms to protect his own collision with the boards.

"I couldn't control any of it," Cooke remembers. "I needed help. I needed to find somebody to help me through it."

Cooke apologized publicly for his past sins, telling reporters, "I realize and understand, more so now than ever, that I need to change." Then he remained quiet for several weeks and watched from the sidelines as the Penguins dropped out of Cup contention.

Cooke disappeared for a week to a private center in Virginia that he describes now as "a little bit holistic." He won't provide any details of his treatment other than to say, "I did a lot of thinking, a lot of healing, got rid of a lot of baggage."

Back at home, Michelle convinced him to join her at the North Way Christian Community Church in Wexford, Pennsylvania. He'd been there before, but the message didn't sink in. God had ceased to be a part of his life when his grandfather died.

One morning, a preacher requested that his audience bow their heads. By a show of hands, he asked, who among us has made a commitment to search for God? Cooke felt his hand rising.

Still, he had his doubts. The next week, he arrived to see a speech by his friend Aaron Smith. Instead, Cooke found the Steelers' defensive end singing at the top of his lungs. Cooke looked at the six-foot-five, 315-pound goliath with disbelief.

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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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