Every sportswriter on the continent has taken their turn writing about Matt Cooke’s hit on Ryan McDonagh last Sunday during the Penguins–Rangers’ afternoon tilt. Universally, they have lambasted Cooke for the hit to some degree or another. Some have said that Cooke deserves his current suspension; others have said it was too lenient. Others have even gone as far as to suggest that the Penguins should voluntarily trade Cooke away or buy him out, given that he "public enemy number one" in the NHL, and a threat to player safety.
According to those pundits, the suspension (or better yet, elimination) of Matt Cooke from the NHL will make the League safer than the back seat of a Volvo station wagon. Opposing players will no longer be in danger and head shots and concussions will be a thing of the past. Crises solved!
If only it were that simple. We can hang Matt Cooke from the tallest tree, but that won’t be the magic bullet that saves the League’s players from injuries, intentional or otherwise.
Cooke not alone in dirty play
Matt Cooke committed a penalty last Sunday, and he deserved to be punished for it. That has happened. But to treat him as if he’s the cause of all headshots and dirty plays in hockey is wilfully ignorant. Cooke is not some bizarre outlier in the NHL. The dirty style of play Cooke is known for isn’t exclusive to him, or even his ilk: grinders and pests. It is conducted by all kinds of players, even elite players, without supplemental discipline being handed down.
Maybe you think that Cooke only deserves his suspension because of his repeat offender status. But shouldn't even first-time offenders, no matter how important they are to drawing crowds to the game, have to answer for their on-ice actions?
An easy scapegoat
Matt Cooke must be feeling a lot like Tony Montana these days. During his disciplinary meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday, I’m sure he was tempted to scream at the Commissioner, "You need people like me! You need people like me so you can point your finger and say, ‘That's the bad guy!’"
Because that’s what Matt Cooke is to the NHL: The Bad Guy. A convenient stooge to both personify and take the fall for everything wrong with this league. He’s just some third-line grinder that the League can safely make an example of and point to whenever they are accused of being "behind the times" on discipline, headshots and concussions. He’s no superstar. He’s not putting bums in seats. He’s just out there to kill penalties and play 15 minutes a night. He’s expendable. We can put responsibility for every safety problem the league faces on his shoulders and cynically desire that his head roll to take away the sins of this inherently dangerous game.
Cooke a valuable contributor to the Pens
And to everyone out there screaming for Cooke to be traded, bought out, permanently suspended or shot into the sun or whatever… calm yourselves. This team is in the business of winning, and the Penguins are a better team with Matt Cooke than without. He’s part of the NHL’s number one penalty kill. He draws penalties. He can skate. He can score. And, perhaps most importantly, he does it all at a bargain price. Really, after how much ink has been spilled on PensBurgh alone about the difficulties we face with the salary cap, do you want this team to spend more on wingers (or worse, on a buyout)?
Make no mistake: Matt Cooke deserved to be suspended for hitting Ryan McDonagh— his hit to the head was dangerous.
Further, he deserved to be criticized by his general manager, coach and teammates for that hit — the Pittsburgh Penguins organization has taken a stance against such behaviour that must be consistently upheld.
But most importantly, he deserves to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins after his suspension, and for the remainder of his contract. After all he has done for this team and its success since coming here in 2008, we at least owe him another chance. He’s earned it.