Matt Cooke walks a fine line: his job is to hit, to provide grit and to make it tough on the opponents. Hockey players are ingrained to "finish your check" from the time you start playing, and Cooke did what he's been taught to do and what keeps him employed; he finished his check.
Unfortunately, this time, Cooke's hit to Marc Savard knocked the Boston player out momentarily and gave him a concussion. No one ever likes to see a player hurt and knocked out, but is this a suspendable crime or just a hockey play gone bad?
After the jump, the video, and why the NHL needs to step up and define if a dangerous and high-probability injury play is just an unfortunate occasional byproduct of playing a fast and brutally physical game, or if such hits that end up to the head (whether intended or not) have a place in the game.
(Courtesy of Pensburgh contributor GhostWalker40)
As you can see, Cooke swoops in from the side of Savard and drills him. The arm/shoulder is down but it doesn't appear Cooke was attempting to lead with an elbow. Savard is in a dangerous and vulnerable position since he just played the puck and didn't see Cooke coming, but at the same time, that's a play that Cooke needs to make to check a guy who is playing the puck.
As I mentioned in the game recap, this hit is eerily similiar in circumstance, and unfortunately in result, to an earlier hit this season when Philadelphia's Mike Richards hit Florida's David Booth.
Richards was given a game misconduct on the play, but the NHL chose not to suspend him (emphsais mine):
...there were a number of reasons that led to the decision not to suspend Richards: he did not target Booth's head; he did not leave his feet to deliver the blow; he did not hit an unsuspecting player; he is not a repeat offender; and he did not hit Booth late, as it was determined the blow was delivered less than a half-second after Booth passed the puck.
By those standards: Matt Cooke didn't seem to really target Savard's head anymore than Richards did to Booth. Matt Cooke did not leave his feet and he did lead with his shoulder. Not sure how the league could rule that Booth (or Savard) could NOT be an "unsuspecting player", as neither saw it coming, but both did cut across the middle, make a pass and hang around, which usually does mean you're going to receive some contact at that level. Cooke's hit probably passes the NHL late test as well -- sure it looks bad in slow mo, but watch again at real speed and it's clearly not a truly late hit, even if the puck was played before Cooke got there.
Which leaves one key issue: Cooke is a repeat offender, just this November he was suspended two games for a hit to the head of New York Rangers forward Artem Anisimov. That hit, while similiar, has some key differences: #1 Cooke lines Anisimov up from a longer distance and contacts him further from the play of Cooke/Savard or Richards/Booth. Cooke also leaves his feet and deliberately raises his arm, connecting to the taller player with his elbow.
Cooke's suspension list does not stop there, however: in January 2009 he was suspended 2 games for a hit to the head of then Carolina forward Scott Walker. According to TSN.ca, Cooke also was suspended for 2 games back in 2004, though a quick search didn't hash up the reason (please comment if you remember it).
Now the NHL has a problem: you have a player with a history of walking the fine line between physical and dirty, one who's no saint and has often strayed the line. You also have players being wheeled out of NHL arenas far too commonly due to hits to their head. The NHL has vowed to crack-down on these types of hits, but they let Richards off the hook for supplemental discipline on a similiar play. Cooke wasn't even penalized on the ice for the play, whether that has any bearing on further debate remains to be seen, but it's at least valid that the four officials who saw the play unfold in real time didn't deem this a vicious or clearly intended shot to the head.
Cooke's got to play physical, he's got to finish checks and make opponents play, but he also has to walk the fine line and try not and swoop in and deliver dangerous shots to the head of vulnerable players. They're all peers and a little more respect is needed. It'll be nice if the NHL sends the message that these dangerous hits can not be tolerated, and not just by guys who've done it and been suspended before. It would probably be unfair if Cooke sits for a while when Mike Richards got away with basically the same (if not worse) hit, but discipline has to start somewhere, and unfortunately for Matt Cooke, he might be the guy the NHL makes an example of.