With the regular season drawing to a close, nominees for the Masterton Trophy have been rolling in and representing the Pittsburgh Penguins is none other than the player opposing teams (and fans) love to hate, Matt Cooke.
The news of Cooke's nomination came with mixed reviews. Some believed that his turnaround this season from dirty head-hunter to efficient hitter is commendable and worthy of the nod he's received. Others feel it's a dishonor to the award, a slap in the face to the players he has dangerously hit.
I wouldn't call myself a Cooke apologist, but I wholeheartedly side with the former opinion. In fact, if Cooke were to win the Masterton, it would send a very strong but necessary message concerning the latest issue of head hits in the NHL. This is why I find the anger surrounding Cooke's nomination silly.
The way Cooke has changed his game following last season's 17-game suspension exemplifies the characteristics of a Masterton nominee and not only is Cooke the deserving candidate on the Pens, but he could be a front runner for the trophy.
I'll break down my reasoning after the jump.
The Masterton Trophy isn't awarded by ranking statistics or analyzing a player's level of skill or worth. No, it is much more ambiguous than that.
According to NHL.com, the Masterton Trophy is given to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. At face value, it seems like almost any NHL player could be eligible to win this award. What player who has reached the NHL level hasn't displayed perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the sport? But the award delves much deeper.
Post-lockout winners have made triumphant returns after a devastating injury or tragedy burdened their lives. This paints a specific image of perseverance, one that exceeds simply meeting the demanding rigors required to be an NHL regular.
But look back further. Masterton winners include Adam Graves of the New York Rangers (2000-2001) for his all-around dedication to hockey, and Dave Taylor of the Los Angeles Kings (1990-1991) who played his 17 seasons with the Kings and was honored for his dedication.
Clearly not every Masterton winner had to overcome an injury or tragedy (even though this still applies to Cooke since his wife fell deathly ill after the Winter Classic, which undoubtedly caused him immeasurable amounts of pain and stress to play through).
As noted here, the Masterton is "often awarded to a player who has overcome a serious injury or illness to continue his career, but it is designed to honor players who triumph over all kinds of challenges and adversity while remaining steadfast in their devotion to the game."
Does the latter not describe Cooke's last year in the NHL?
Just over a year ago, the NHL deservedly slapped the reckless Cooke with a suspension to the end of the season (10 games) and the first round of the playoffs (seven games). When the Tampa Bay Lightning booted the Pens in the first round, no doubt some blame went to Cooke whose penalty killing and overall pesty-attitude and defensive play could have been a significant help.
Cooke said in a recent article, "To sit up top and not to be able to go out and help ... It's a different situation like [Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin], when they were hurt. They couldn't go. But I was healthy and sitting up there. It was a gut-wrenching feeling."
What Cooke has done to change his game is something to behold. Not only has he slashed his penalty minutes by 100, but he is having a career season offensively, netting a career high 17 goals and four game winning goals. He has done all of this while maintaining and even improving his reputation as a sound defensive winger.
Regardless of these facts, one glaringly remains: Cooke is making a comeback from an punishable attitude, unlike others who were otherwise "innocent" in their tribulations. Is this worthy of praise?
Here's where things get sticky.
Many people will say no, this is not worthy of praise. Why should he be rewarded for acting how he should have been acting all along? Would you reward an older brother for going a day without beating up on his little sister? Of course not.
The difference, however, is that Cooke's actions weren't always considered suspendable. Once upon a time, head hits were a regular occurrence, widely accepted as a part of the unforgiving game of hockey. But as concussions occupied NHL headlines, heads of the League realized an overhaul became necessary. The image of the NHL had to change for the short and long-term safety of the players.
It took Cooke some dangerous mistakes to learn his lesson, but he has succeeded. As such, I don't see his nomination as rewarding his previous dirty play, but rather encouraging change the NHL is requiring in the many players that dapple with borderline hits. Think of it as a modern day version of the Prodigal Son.
Regardless of whether this is an admirable challenge to have, it is a challenge nonetheless and that's what the Masterton honors: players who overcome challenges in their career. Change like this isn't easy. Cooke was a player who identified with the extreme definition of a pest and his success in the position probably got him in the NHL in the first place. And with the flip of a switch, Cooke found it in himself to change. His hits were jarring but legal under the new parameters. His mindset shifted from "always deliver the biggest hit" to "what's the best move I can make for my team?" It's easy to say "Oh yeah, Matt Cooke changed," but there is so much depth to that change and how difficult it was for Cooke. He now spends at least a half hour after each game studying his shifts to ensure he's playing an effective style.
Were the NHL to reward Cooke with the Masterton Trophy, it would send a huge message to the rest of the League: change is possible without losing sight of an effective playing style. However, I doubt the NHL has the guts to pull something like that.
However, in the end, the award isn't important. The fact that the Pens have Matt Cooke to man the penalty kill and take part in tremendous secondary scoring rather than sitting in the press box, is.