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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