The Matt Cooke/ Erik Karlsson incident was in the news again today, as Karlsson held a press conference to discuss his perspective and to alert the world to the fact that he is not returning Matt Cooke’s text messages. Yeah. About that.
Matt Cooke certainly earned his reputation as a dirty player. But perhaps we should be paying a bit more attention to the fact that he is not an entirely self-made man. Cooke didn’t invent dirty hits or cheap head shots. Somewhere along the way, as he made his way up through peewee hockey, then the OHL, and ultimately the NHL, Matt Cooke learned that making an impact as a dirty player— both literally and metaphorically—was a legitimate strategy for achieving a certain type of success. Ultimately, no one other than Matt Cooke is responsible for his actions on the ice. However, it seems hopelessly naïve to think that Cooke could have made it as far as he has in his career without the implicit endorsement of many people along the way— coaches, trainers, teammates, and even fans.
Yes, we all have a role in this. He isn’t a brawler, but there’s no denying that the type of hockey that Cooke played for much of his career is intrinsically bound to the deep affection that many people feel for what is charmingly called ‘old time hockey’. Like quaint recollections of the ‘good old days’ that never really were, old time hockey is in many ways a modern invention. At best, it is a concept rooted in a desire to reinforce the idea that hockey has always been a brutal but fair game, played according to an incredibly strict code of honor. At worst, the phrase is simply an exercise in borrowing time. Every day that dirty hockey is tolerated is another day that we are trading player safety and career longevity for cheap entertainment. Parents, coaches, trainers, players, and fans who truly love and respect the sport have a responsibility to nurture the future of the game. This means that a commitment to safe play must begin at the earliest stages of a players’ journey— long before they ever reach the NHL.
How can we support the players we so love to watch while simultaneously celebrating a style of play that facilitates injuries that could end their careers? How can we take part in a culture that creates dirty players, whether through explicit instruction or by turning our heads the other way, and then vilifies them for plying their trade? After Karlsson was injured, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk proclaimed that Cooke should no longer play in the NHL, stating that "This is a league for elite players". If that is true, then the NHL should be fundamentally concerned with overseeing the creation of elite players. If word is spread throughout the land that the NHL truly has zero tolerance for dirty play or cheap shots, then there is not a peewee, junior, or minor league team on earth that won’t take notice. This is a case where the trickle-down theory truly can have a lasting, positive effect.
Again, none of this is to say that anyone other than Matt Cooke is responsible for his play, or that Erik Karlsson doesn’t have every right to be furious about his season ending in a deeply unfortunate manner. Still, the speculation that Cooke intended to sever Karlsson’s achilles needs to end. It’s simply ridiculous. And let’s give credit where credit is due: Matt Cooke has made tremendous strides towards changing his style of play, a process that Penguins fans, at least, have taken note of in the two years since Cooke was suspended for an elbow to the head of the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh. Cooke showed his character when he apologized publicly for his hit on McDonagh, and the Penguins organization absolutely did the right thing by supporting his suspension and supporting him in his transition to playing tough but honest hockey.
Those who seek to depict Matt Cooke as a criminal might do well to recognize that his career trajectory is actually an excellent example of how the game can move in a new direction. He is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, and that hockey can continue beyond the outdated model of the past.