Matt Cooke: The soul of an agitator
Matt Cooke lifts a hockey stick above his head. In a dressing room in the Xcel Energy Center, lights flash against his taut forearms and biceps. He draws a smile nearly as wide as his neck and reveals a missing front tooth.
Give me a sneer, the photographer says. Cooke tries it, but when asked to take his shirt off, the Minnesota Wild's new forward draws the line.
"That's not me," Cooke says, his voice serious and soft. "I'm not a flashy guy like that."
The 35-year-old hockey vet has been called many names — bum, goon, rat, pest, dirtiest player in the NHL. He has also had the rule book rewritten in his dishonor.
Fans refer informally to Rule 48 — a prohibition against blindside hits — as the Cooke Rule. In March 2010, with about six minutes to go in the game, Cooke delivered a flying elbow to the head of the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard. Savard's body lifted and spun like a tetherball around an invisible pole.
Even one of Cooke's teammates, the Penguins' Bill Guerin, called for his suspension. "Guys don't mean to hurt each other, but they do," Guerin told reporters. "You got to pay a price for that."
In hockey parlance, Cooke is an agitator — a class of welterweights who, between making plays, intimidate the opposing team's players and provide space for star shooters to score.
"He's like a CIA spook," says Ross Bernstein, the Eagan-based author of The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. "You don't want to acknowledge them, but you have to have them for national security."
It's an inevitable consequence of hockey's unspoken "game within the game," and it puts Cooke in a precarious position every time he laces up. The speed at which hockey is played today blurs the line between what's acceptable hitting and what's reckless.
Many eyes will be on Cooke this week when he dons a Wild sweater for the first game of the regular season. He's out to prove that he's not the bad guy everyone thinks he is.
"I made it in the league for so long because I played a certain way," Cooke says. "And to play that way, I mentally — game in and out — had to put myself in another place to go out and do my job."
"Matt Cooke's stirring it up in Pittsburgh," the announcer says. "He's not slowing down, there's no way. That's part of his game."
It's November 8, 2008, and the Devils' Zach Parise has slashed Cooke one too many times tonight with his stick. When Cooke sees Parise about to end his shift, he sprints over to send a message.
It comes in the unmistakable form of a body check. The impact sends Parise over the bench, his skates dancing in the air. Righting himself, Parise slips and stumbles back onto the ice as though it's made of banana peels.
The former antagonists became teammates this July when Cooke signed a three-year contract with the Wild worth $7.5 million. His iPhone buzzed all night with congratulatory texts, but one in particular caught his eye.
"Hey Matt, Zach Parise here," the text read. "Happy to have you on board. Our team is on the way up and going to keep getting better. Let me know if you need anything in the meantime."
Happy for the hospitality, Cooke responded in kind.
"Thanks, I'll apologize in person for our run-ins in the past," he texted. "It was nothing personal."
Two months later, in the locker room, Cooke mentions the hit and the two men laugh as they shed their gear. When asked why he didn't like playing against Cooke, the Wild's star player snickers nervously.
"He was pretty dirty," Parise says. "He got under your skin, and he's got that ability to take your focus off of the game."
But he's quick to add: "That's a good trait to have and a good player for us to have."
In other words, Cooke has value so long as he's on your team. His presence on the bench means that the opposing players have to account for him at all times. But so, too, will the referees.
"He'll be in a tough spot," says David Singer, who runs the website Hockeyfights.com. "He'll just have to throw a lot of clean, hard hits."
With Cooke, the Wild are looking to do more than just replace Cal Clutterbuck, who compiled an NHL record 356 hits in 78 games during the 2008-09 season. The days of the true heavyweights are dwindling, and the team already has Zenon Konopka, one of the most penalized players in the league. Come playoff time, a guy who reeks of penalty minutes is likely to be a healthy scratch. Players are expected to wear more than a single hat.
"Has he taken head shots? Yes. Will he continue to do so? Probably," the author Bernstein says of Cooke. "But he's changed and he won't take as many dumb penalties. They know that bringing him in. They're paying a lot of money."
Cooke is already showing physical restraint. At the first exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he passed up an opportunity to cream defenseman Will Weber. There was just no telling which way Weber would go after the collision. But it was also a hit Cooke would have taken, even in the preseason, only a few years ago.
Both Wild head coach Mike Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher have ties to the Penguins organization and understand the qualities that make Cooke a desirable player. Pittsburgh was constrained by the salary cap and put him low on its list of priorities. Once he became a free agent, Minnesota scooped him up.
"He's now a player who you can count on, in critical situations in the game, to make the right play," Fletcher says. "He's well known for his physical style of play, but to me that's just sort of the icing on the cake."
Decades of smoking had finally caught up with the old man. Pale and emaciated, he seemed to be dissolving into the sheets of his hospital bed. Only his Army-issued flattop remained unchanged.
Even at 12, Matt knew that his grandfather, Robert David "R.D." Cooke, was dying. The boy was taking it hard. His relationship with his own father was strained, and the old man was his closest male role model.
Matt wanted to stay, but he had a hockey tournament to attend. His father dragged him away with the promise that he'd see the old man in two days when they got home.
In the car, Matt complained. While he was at the hospital, his grandfather hadn't woken up, so they hadn't had a chance to speak. The wheels rolled on.
The games they played weren't memorable. But in the locker room after the second day, Matt got a message that he would never forget: R.D. had just died.
He stayed there until the arena staff kicked him out.
"If I missed one game just to say goodbye to my grandfather, I don't think it would have changed my career," Cooke says today. "I took it hard and I didn't play."
Not playing was almost unthinkable. Hockey is the unofficial religion of Stirling, Ontario, a village of 1,800 that steeps its children in the feudal sport as soon as they can stand up on skates. Cooke first laced up at two. By six, he was traveling from town to town, bumping shoulders with eight- and nine-year-olds.
"That's just what everybody does," Cooke's brother Steve says. "Hockey is just such a big part of who you are when you grow up in it. Not that it makes you, but it plays such a big role in your life that you can't get rid of it."
After school in the winter, Matt would head down to the frozen mill pond, followed by his brother and friends. The town kept the ice clean by hitching a big blue brush to the front of a tractor. At home, the Cooke boys shared a tiny bedroom with R.D. and a gray poodle named Shadow.
But now that R.D. was gone, the sport had lost its luster for Cooke. His family and coach prodded him to put on his skates again. They took him for drives. It's not what your grandfather would've wanted, they argued. His death is not your fault.
After several weeks, Matt caved — he missed the game too much. He vowed to play in his grandfather's memory and came out swinging. During his rookie season with the Windsor Spitfires, a junior team with the Ontario Hockey League, he caught the eye of the new coach, Paul Gillis.
"He was just a ball of energy — very aggressive, very physical," Gillis remembers. "He proved that he should be on the team."
There was only one problem: Matt's style put other players in harm's way. Gillis pulled him off the bus one day as it was preparing to leave for the six-hour drive to Sault Ste. Marie. Cooke stood in the snow, shivering, as he got a lecture in good sportsmanship.
"You're playing in the OHL the way I played in the NHL," Gillis told Cooke. "You're gonna get there; just keep your elbows down."
The message got through, if only for the time being. Cooke ended the next year with 45 goals and 50 assists. It earned him a spot with the Canadian national junior team.
In late 1997, Cooke stepped off a plane in Finland and onto the world stage. The coach asked each of the team's players — guys who hardly knew one another — to dedicate the tournament to someone special in their lives.
With tears in his eyes, Matt uttered the words, "Robert David Cooke."
Cooke entered a bar in Belleville, Ontario, and approached Michelle Foley. She had come for a bridal shower after a 12-hour work day, and she stared at him curiously.
"Oh, you're the asshole from last summer," she said, turning her back.
He had screwed that one up on her uncle's boat. Cooke had just signed an NHL contract and he made sure that everyone knew it, including Michelle.
He would have a chance to make it up to her an hour later, when a fight broke out. Michelle's brother, Brandon, stood up to some boors who'd called his Indian friend a "Paki." One of them bloodied Brandon's nose. The bouncer tossed everyone outside.
Cooke had never met Brandon, but he rounded up several high school buddies to back him up. Michelle had already apologized for her curt greeting earlier. Now she urged Cooke not to fight.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"It's not about being superstitious," Cooke says. "It's about having a routine at work."
"Oh, let's not kid yourself," Michelle says. "When you started having the soup and getting all those points it was superstitious."
"I'm not saying it isn't, but —"
She laughs, and finishes his sentence: "But now it just works for him."
Back in 2004, Cooke and his wife were looking for a way to honor their niece — Brandon Foley's daughter, Hope, who had been born without a heartbeat. So Cooke used his growing notoriety in Vancouver to open the wallets of the local celebrity class. With an initial 200,000 Canadian dollars, the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope got off the ground.
The families remain tight to this day. Both men moved to the Twin Cities for work and, unbeknownst to each other, found houses on the same block.
The public perception of Matt does not match his true persona, Brandon says.
"It's a complete dichotomy," he marvels. "There's an emotional hatred for him on the ice."
A 20-foot cross hangs between two mega screens in the center of the Christ Presbyterian Church sanctuary in Edina. This is God's arena, with room for 1,100. It's also the next stop on the Cooke family tour of local churches.
The pews are beginning to fill for the Saturday night service, a contemporary mix of homily, humor, and soft-rock hymns. It's a good fit for Cooke, who spends his Sundays in the service of Lord Stanley.
Today, he has traded his Wild sweater for a purple polo and a gray-and-black stripped hoodie. He takes a seat toward the back corner, looking slightly relieved that the usher didn't recognize him.
"For the first six months that happens," Cooke explains, "and then you can't really go anywhere."
Soon Cooke is back on his feet, bobbing his head and tapping two fingers against the pew. Between songs, he pulls a wad of money from his jeans and peels off a $20. His wife drops it in the collection plate.
On stage, John Crosby, the senior pastor, riffs on a passage from one of St. Paul's letters, about living with a renewed sense of purpose. Change comes to a man only after he decides to listen, not before.
"Improvement is not redemption," he adds, "even though redemption will always improve people's lives."
The rain picks up as the light through the chapel windows fades. Cooke smiles and removes his meaty paw from under his wife's delicate hand, rising nearly six feet into the air on unwavering limbs. He covers her shoulders in a gray sweater and turns to face the musicians.
Closing his eyes, he sings quietly: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."
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