PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 27: Matt Cooke #24 of the Pittsburgh Penguins finishes a check on Bryan Allen #5 of the Carolina Hurricanes during the game at Consol Energy Center on December 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins won 4-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
My name is Steve and I'm a recovering Matt Cooke hater.
Good. Introductions are out of the way. Now to the meat of the thesis.
A fair bit of my time as a Penguins blogger, primarily spent over at SB Nation Pittsburgh, has been spent slighting Matt Cooke.
I despised Cooke in a purely ethical way.
A valuable player, to be sure, but one who had little regard for his fellow professional, and the guy who unnecessarily obliterated Marc Savard's brain.
I hated that hit with every inch of my body. Hated it.
I hated that he continued to throw his elbows around with reckless abandon, unable to discern the inanity of his actions. Heads were made to be broken. Skulls were meant to be cracked.
I hated that we, "we" being a circle that surrounds our local Penguins fanbase and media, made a habit of apologizing for Cooke. Of offering up half-cooked reasons for his actions.
Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate.
Most of all, I hated that a good player couldn't curtail the nonsense and allow us to appreciate his ability without being dragged down by the baggage his nonsensical physicality brought with him.
But at the halfway point of the season, it's apparent that Cooke has changed. Or is at least making an incredible effort to do so.
Through 41 games, Cooke has recorded 14 penalty minutes. That's 12th on the team. Less than Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal, Matt Niskanen and a bevy of other players who play a much less physically. Cooke is also only one of four players to play in every game for the Penguins this season, giving him ample opportunity for thuggery that he hasn't taken advantage of.
Meanwhile, he's still 3rd on the team in hits, 2nd amongst forwards in blocked shots, and averages the 3rd-most time on ice amongst forwards on the NHL's 4th-best penalty kill.
To think, Matt Cooke could stick to his game and play effectively without behaving like a troll.
For that, he deserves some sort reward.
It's already well known, but state it for clarity: the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is a joke.
The principle is nice, giving an award to "player adjudged (by the Professional Hockey Writers Association) to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."
But the effort put forth in handing it out is minimal. Really, at this point, it's a burden.
And, to be fair, both players truly embody the rules set forth in determining the winner. Skilled players who play a clean game. Anyone who claims to dislike Datsyuk or St. Louis is either a). a liar b) a blind hater or c). a Westboro Baptist Church parishioner.
Or d). all of the above. "God hates clean defensive play!"
A major step down from past Byngers is Cooke.
That's why a player of his lesser stock earning an award of this nature would mean so much more to him.
A physical, yeoman-like worker who expects to retire without an individual award, and yet has made a drastic, impressive change to his game in the interest of "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct."
For Datsyuk and St. Louis, playing cleanly is second nature. For Cooke it takes effort.
Of course, St. Louis could win it again. He probably will. Good for him, he'll have three on his mantle piece gathering dust.
Or voters could make an effort to actually legitimize the award in some sense. To make it something worth talking about.
Thinking outside the box would be a step in the right direction and there'd be no better way to start than by casting a vote for Cooke at the season's end.
If he keeps it up, that is.