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."

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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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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