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Puck Talk with Popchock: Pens, NHL Must Address Mirror

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Matt Cooke, Fedor Tyutin

Penguins winger Matt Cooke was suspended four games for this hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets Feb. 8. (Photo credit: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

“Cookie can create things.  It’s not that he’s just bouncing off bodies out there.” -Sidney Crosby

“If people suggest our game is violent, Matt Cooke is one of the guys inciting this violence.” -Brad May

“Matt Cooke has found his niche and [plays] his role very effectively.” -Mike Keane

“I’m as crazy as this: The NHL [should declare] open season for one week on Matt Cooke.  You won’t get suspended.  Then we’ll see if he’ll continue [dishing out cheap hits] for the rest of the season or his career.” -Ken Daneyko

If you read what Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber and some present and past NHL-ers had to say about the Penguins’ beleaguered forward Mar. 14, it’s probably hard for you to imagine a more controversial player in the league presently than Cooke, especially after Sunday’s travesty at Consol Energy Center.

The best way to describe him, however, might come from one of my favorite Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedies, “Stripes”:

“Convicted?  No, never convicted.”

Well, Colin Campbell effectively locked up Matt Cooke for most of, if not all, the remainder of the Penguins’ season, which begs the question: should the Pens throw away the key?

I don’t want to see Matt Cooke in a Penguin uniform–or any other NHL uniform, for that matter–until this approaching September, when training camp for the 2011-12 season begins.  He needs to learn the lesson, once and for all, that there are standards to be maintained.

A true fan’s loyalty is to the team, not just to the individual, and a true Penguin fan will support Ray Shero if he decides this summer to buy out Cooke’s contract and cut his losses, regardless of Cooke’s under-appreciated skill set.  I know I will.  Shero has given no indication that Cooke’s days in Pittsburgh are permanently over, but the team, thus far, has still handled the situation commendably.

In addition to the GM’s public expression of solidarity with the league’s punishment, he and Mario Lemieux have shared their disappointment with Cooke in private, so the Pens, who, for some reason, seem to be a vocal minority in their campaign to improve head safety in the NHL, can not be accused of hypocrisy this time, nor can I.

When Mario expressed his disappointment with the league for its reaction–or lack thereof–to the debacle that took place between the Penguins and Islanders Feb. 11, it disturbed me to see the way some in the league and (inter-)national media trivialized issues of vigilantism and player safety by taking a near-sighted stance and making it all about Matt Cooke’s employment status.

However, I’m the first to admit Mario’s–and Matt’s–critics got another round of ammunition this past weekend.  I applaud the Penguins’ eagerness to be at the forefront of improving the safety and integrity of the NHL, but Cooke ran them through with their own sword.

What he did to the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh Sunday afternoon was, in any context, inexcusable.  It caused unnecessary damage to the credibility of his team, to say nothing of what little credibility he himself may have left, and caused an unnecessary swing in momentum toward the Blueshirts.  The Pens lost at home to New York for the third time this season in yet another game that had no good reason to get out of hand the way it did with Cooke’s WWE crap.  Fourth place in the East is not etched in stone yet, but the ensuing divisional loss was a damaging blow to the Penguins’ hopes of leapfrogging the first-place Flyers.

Joe Starkey (“Seibel, Starkey, & Miller”; weekdays, 2-6 PM, 93.7 The Fan) put it best.  When Cooke immediately fled the scene of his crime, it didn’t look like just another game misconduct.  It looked like a cry for help.  Maybe Cooke does need to see a psychologist while serving his suspension.  Or maybe he simply needs to be reminded he plays on Fifth Avenue, not Broad Street.

Either way, I am fully convinced the blind squirrel finally found the acorn, and gave Matt Cooke what he deserved.  But I’m going to need some more convincing before I believe the NHL dropped the hammer on Cooke for entirely the right reasons.

Campbell, the NHL’s head of discipline, and league commissioner Gary Bettman are what they are: executives.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about executives, it’s that they don’t like being told what they don’t want to hear, even if the messenger’s intentions are noble.  The way Lemieux was persecuted after making his Feb. 13 statement was a classic case of shooting the messenger.  Campbell didn’t like being told by Lemieux what the league didn’t want to hear, so given the opportunity to raise his middle finger to Mario, he took it.

It was also a classic case of the NHL’s all too conservative Anglo-Canadian leadership ganging up on a powerful, progressive-minded French-Canadian, an individual who was one of hockey’s all-time greats and has historically made a good-faith effort to be a good ambassador to the game, his country, and his community.  Meshing politics and sports is one of the last things I’d ever want to do, but you’d better believe that was at play in both instances.

“This isn’t the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behavior on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response,” said Campbell in a statement released by the NHL Monday.

Hey, when he’s right, he’s right.  In fact, I’ll never forget Campbell’s harsh response to something “Mr.” Cooke did on the ice just over a year ago:

“Have you ever played the game of hockey, Joe?  Well, he didn’t do anything wrong!” -Campbell in a March 2010 interview on “Seibel & Starkey”

That heated interview took place just days after Cooke delivered a potentially career-shortening hit to the head of Boston’s Marc Savard, a play for which Cooke could have and should have been suspended…and how dare Joe say so!  The Penguins barely made a peep at the time, and days after the incident, there was Campbell, on our airwaves, passionately defending Cooke.

Interesting…

Once again, Campbell, who dished out the longest suspension in Pens history (a minimum of 14 games) Monday, is correct to say this isn’t the first time this year he’s had to deal with Cooke’s stupidity.  However, when he had to deal with it from other players this year, he did so with similar inconsistency.

Islanders forward Trevor Gillies, like Matt Cooke, did something industrial-strength stupid Feb. 11 when he took a blatant cheap shot to the back of Penguins forward Eric Tangradi’s head, concussing him for over a month.  Gillies continued to rain blows upon a visibly incapacitated Tangradi, then taunted the injured player before disappearing from sight.  His punishment: nine games.

In Gillies’ first game back, he dished out a blindside hit to the head of the Minnesota Wild’s Cal Clutterbuck just as irresponsible and classless as the one Cooke delivered to McDonagh.  Now Gillies was a “repeat offender”…just like Cooke.  Now the NHL had every excuse to throw the book at Gillies, just like it did Cooke on Monday.  His punishment:  ten games, only one more than he received for his first offense.

“Trevor Gillies, come on down!  You’re the next contestant on Wheel…of…Discipline!”

The NHL didn’t need a book to throw at Marty McSorley, Todd Bertuzzi, or, most recently, Cooke, when it came down unusually hard on all three.  All it needed was common sense.  All three men, in context, were idiots, and all three received a fair punishment at the time.  Why couldn’t the NHL use the same common sense in dealing with Gillies?  Or Zdeno Chara?  Or Brad Marchand?  Or Dany Heatley?

A reliable source told me Bettman, shortly after Campbell’s aforementioned radio interview, actually called station management to complain about the “rhetoric” of our talent.  That’s because Bettman has not yet resigned himself to the idea that the NHL is surrounded by the environment it has created.

Given the inexplicable but typical shoulder-shrugging that took place at the annual GM Meetings in Boca Raton, the NHL effectively said it’s okay for Chara to nearly end the career–and, for all we know, the life–of Max Pacioretty.  It’s okay for Marchand to put an egregious elbow to the head of R.J. Umberger.  It’s okay for Heatley to do the same to Steve Ott.

And finally, it’s okay for David Steckel to concuss Sidney Crosby, whom you have deemed the face of your league, with a blow to the head in textbook violation of your own new rule (No. 48).  It’s okay for all that garbage to take place…as long as nobody dies, and your name isn’t Matt Cooke.

I feel bad for Sid too, but karma works in mysterious ways, and without Crosby available to be the NHL’s meal ticket for half the season, the league, in a twisted way, is getting what it deserves.  That’s what happens when you look the other way while teams besides the Pens employ players who are not always above doing things that are beneath the game.

Reviewing the agenda of that quagmire in Boca Raton further illustrates the bubble in which many members of the NHL community live.  Apparently these folks care just as much about whether the so-called “spin-o-rama” belongs in shootouts as they do about head safety.

You’ve got to be (bleeping) kidding me.

It’s way past time to burst that bubble.  For the NHL to truly affect positive change and deter the behavior of Cooke and others of his ilk, the league needs to finally put aside politics and listen when Lemieux meets with the Board of Governors this summer to discuss the former’s plan for financially reprimanding teams when one of their players crosses a line.

Lemieux already indicated prior to Sunday’s incident that the Penguins would pay hundreds of thousands–and now, probably more–under his system for violations this season, thereby reassuring the league the Penguins do not exempt themselves from criticism.  Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Penguins pay a significant team fine on Cooke’s behalf right now, just to prove they’re serious.

The NHL must be willing to acquiesce regarding the Pens’ desire to distance the league from head contact altogether.  The Penguins, in turn, should be prepared to swallow their pride regarding Matt Cooke’s future in Pittsburgh if it will put Mario and the NHL on the same page.

Until any of this happens, Cooke is still a Penguin.  I don’t know if he’ll stop being an embarrassing Penguin whenever he returns to NHL ice, or if he’ll simply not be a Penguin.  Matt Cooke may not be the Ben Roethlisberger of his sport, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Big Ben, it’s that athletes can change, and that, for the fans, helping their team win is the ultimate olive branch.  Call me crazy, but I’m willing to trust the judgment of a GM with a proven track record on this issue.

In the meantime, I don’t blame anyone for throwing Cooke under the bus after Sunday.  But while you’re at it, make the rest of the hockey community grab a wheel.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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