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

I can't be caught singing in public, Cooke thought. I have an image to keep.

Gradually, Cooke came to feel more comfortable. Before long, he was singing too. By the end of the year, he was giving talks of his own, sometimes two a day, about his religious rebirth.

"He took it on like an athlete," says his pastor, Scott Stevens. "He knew to stay on the ice he needed to change his style."

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

When asked how he can be a follower of Christ while hitting people for a living, Cooke has a ready explanation.

"He's not asking me to go out and be an angel," Cooke explains. "He's looking at me to use my platform to the best of my abilities. What happens on the ice is confined within the sport."

To complete his transformation, Cooke knew he would need to be a better man on the ice, and the Penguins organization knew it too. Ray Shero, the general manager, gave him an ultimatum: get with it or get out.

"It's nice that you keep on saying these great things," Shero told Cooke, "but until you get on the ice and prove that, repeatedly, you're still one play away."

Cooke's evolution would mean literally retraining his brain. He sat down for endless game-film sessions with coaches. The goal was to learn to quickly assess whether it was worth crushing a guy. He looked at stick position and what that does to a person's center of gravity near the boards. Hit a guy on the forehand and he's more likely to flop on his back; hit a guy on the backhand and he's more likely to spin and go head first.

"It wasn't just an overnight change," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma says. "He came at it in a different light and mindset, and I think Matt was a better player and person because of it."

After 18 months without an infraction, Cooke was removed from the league's probationary list of "repeat offenders." The numbers he put up for the 2011-12 season with the Penguins ranked among his best — 38 points and just 44 penalty minutes.

No matter how hard Cooke worked, some things remained out of his control. In a game last February, Cooke and the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson got entangled as they followed the puck into the boards. Both sticks were lifted into the air, causing Cooke to lean hard on his right skate. His left blade came down on Karlsson's Achilles' tendon.

Karlsson tried to skate it off. He seemed unaware of the laceration until he put pressure on his left foot and shouted in pain. He gave Cooke a deathly look before players and medical staff helped him into the locker room.

For the rest of the game, Cooke was a marked man. With two minutes left, he took a punch to the face by the Senators' Chris Neil without retaliating. But that wasn't good enough for Neil, who threw a second punch, then tackled Cooke. When the dust had settled, Cooke spit blood from his mouth.

For Cooke's critics, the sliced tendon was all the evidence they needed. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told TSN — Canada's ESPN — that whether Cooke had intended to injure Karlsson was irrelevant.

"At what point do you say, 'You know what? Maybe he's not changed.'"

Some fans are threatening to boo Cooke during his first home game. On Wild.com, one commenter suggested rolling out a sign saying "UN-WELCOME MATT." Word traveled back to his family this summer as they were preparing to leave a supportive fan base in Pittsburgh.

"They stood by him 110 percent," Michelle says of Penguins fans. "Even when things were terribly wrong there, everybody had his back. He was one of them."

Some of the criticism of Cooke's behavior on the ice has been fair, she admits. But when people make personal attacks, they forget that he's also a husband and father.

"It's almost like he's a character in a movie," she says. "He has to play a certain role. That's what he gets paid for. And then off the ice, it's almost like — cut! And he's normal."

The family rents a tidy ranch house in Edina that sits atop a hill, hidden by natural canopies. They refer to it affectionately as their "tree house," a private playground where Dad can catch up and unwind with one of his other passions — cooking.

In his granite and hardwood kitchen, Cooke chops onions, tomatoes, and carrots for a sauce he's making from scratch. Jackson sports his father's jersey, number 24 — once worn by the legendary tough guy Derek Boogaard — as he watches the food prep. Jackson plays baseball, but gave up hockey because "it wasn't fun," he says. "I score too easily." His father laughs and prepares the glaze for his jerk chicken.

Before every home game, Michelle has gotten into the habit of preparing a three-hour dish that's been dubbed "hockey soup." It's a thick lentil concoction that she first fed Matt when he broke his jaw in 2005. After missing 17 games, he came back on a scoring hot streak. The ritual stuck.

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