The NHL recently nominated Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke for the Masterton Trophy. This has raised some eyebrows since the trophy is supposed to recognize guys who show a high level of perseverance and sportsmanship.
These are traits not normally associated with Matt Cooke.
Cooke is more known for hitting. Cheap hitting.
He hit the national stage with his blind-side cheap shot of Bruin Marc Savard in 2010, a hit that ended Savard’s playing career. He was memorably not suspended for that hit, but that hit is the hit that spawned the league’s current scrutiny of head shots.
Last season, Cooke struck again by taking another cheap shot, this time against Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The league did not look the other way this time and suspended him for the Penguins' final ten regular season games and their first round playoff series against Tampa Bay.
The Penguins loss to Tampa Bay was not due to being without Cooke, but it didn’t help. Cooke, when he wanted to be, had shown that he could be an effective player. He had a bit of a scoring touch, could kill penalties, play defense and be an effective physical presence.
The problem was that he never knew where the line was and thus, crossed it too often.
After the McDonagh hit, people were outraged at his behavior and some even called for him to be banned from the league. Cooke seemed to hear the criticisms as he announced this summer that after some soul searching, he was going to change his game.
Had he finally seen the light? Hockey pundits around the league scoffed at the idea that the predatory player could settle down and play hockey the right way.
But that is exactly what Cooke has done this season.
Cooke has not had any questionable hits this year and has cut his penalty minutes down to 36 after three straight seasons of 100-plus minutes. That is quite a drop.
With that extra time on the ice, he has shown his value to the Penguins. He has chipped in a career-high 19 goals, four of them game-winners, and is on pace for a career-high in points.
So he has cleaned himself up. Is that worthy of the Masterton Trophy?
There are many who will never forgive Matt Cooke for his prior crimes, the same way many have not forgiven Todd Bertuzzi (a former team mate of Cooke’s), and that is understandable. But for all the criticism Cooke received, shouldn’t he get some praise now?
After all, he heard what we were all screaming at him. He realized he was playing over the line and in essence hurting the sport. Whatever his motives were, he took the steps to play right. That had to be tough to do: to rein in his instincts—no matter how out of whack they were—could not have been an easy task.
Yes, we should give him some credit. Credit is one thing, but recognizing him as the best example of perseverance and sportsmanship is another.
It is too soon to give Cooke this award. There are too many memories embedded in our brains of Savard laying on the ice, out cold from a Cooke head shot. The perception is still of a dirty player. And though Cooke may be able to change that perception in time, but one season is not enough.
We should not award him just yet.
What Cooke has done this year is commendable and he should be praised for it, but like in the game of "Horse," we need to see him prove it before we start handing him hardware. If Matt Cooke puts in a couple more solid years like this one, give him the Masterton, Byng, or whatever else. Just not this year, and not now.