Depending on your perspective, the redemption story of Matt Cooke was either a hopeful tale that showed anyone with a checkered past of unscrupulous behavior could change his ways or a mythical representation of a person who would eventually reveal his true nature of a predatory player with injurious motivations on the ice.
Three years of suspension-free, relatively clean play from one of the NHL's most notorious players were washed away with one inexcusable knee-on-knee hit in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday night that left Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie out four to six weeks. The NHL handed down a seven-game banishment late Wednesday to Cooke for the hit, officially shattering that inspirational comeback story and exposing Cooke as a fraud.
Based on the reaction of a salivating, rabid hockey community, there were far more people who spent the past three years storing vitriol and have been more than happy to spit it out and dance to a beat of told you sos.
Adrian Dater of The Denver Post (and Bleacher Report) condemned Cooke's hit and referred to him as reformed, but only in sarcastic quotations. Dater, of course, wasn't anywhere close to alone in that opinion. Here's a sampling from around the league:
There's this almost creepy gloating that has come along with Cooke kneeing Barrie and the inevitable suspension. People are reveling in his relapse because it somehow validates all their thoughts about what he did throughout his career, like people who spent three years mocking a recovering alcoholic then high-fiving each other when the alcoholic kills someone in a drunk driving accident.
Where's the sympathy for Barrie? Where's the analysis that the injury leaves an already-thin Avalanche blue line in an almost irreparable state? If it's out there, it's buried under an avalanche of Cooke bashing.
But really, where's the acknowledgement that Cooke doing this is less about feeling superior while having your beliefs reinforced and more about the systemic problem the NHL has with players like Cooke who still exist throughout today's game?
Cooke deserves to be condemned for what he did to Barrie and for all the cheap shots that came before him, including the elbow to Marc Savard that didn't result in one of his six career suspensions but instead forced the NHL to adopt a new rule regarding lateral hits and head shots. His litany of cheap shots are impossible to defend—Ryan McDonagh, Artem Anisimov, Scott Walker, Fedor Tyutin would likely agree—but this wasn't always Cooke's calling card.
Through his first nine NHL seasons, Cooke was suspended once for spearing Matt Johnson of the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 21, 2004. That's approximately 600 NHL games in which Cooke's only suspendable offense was a stick infraction. While that doesn't mean he didn't deliver dubious hits over that time, he certainly wasn't a menace and the poster boy for bad hockey that he has become today.
In January 2009, Cooke's game took a turn for the worse. He became someone who needed to "play on the edge," which is hockey code for "do a lot of dirty, dangerous things but don't take too many penalties or get suspended because otherwise you become useless." He was suspended four times between January 2009 and March 2011, the final suspension a result of an elbow to the head of McDonagh that cost Cooke the rest of the season and forced him to change his ways or else.
That two-year run also includes the Savard hit that many people believe ended his career, but it was a second hit from Colorado's Matt Hunwick the following season that did that.
The fact that Cooke was encouraged to play "on the edge" speaks volumes about the mentality many hockey coaches possess, that simply playing the game well isn't enough for some players. Cooke believed for a very long time that in order to maintain employment in the NHL, he had to play that dangerous style. It's not as though he woke up one morning and decided to play a borderline-sociopathic style in an effort to end careers.
It's a little-known fact, but Cooke actually knows how to play hockey. It's true, I swear.
Cooke has been a 10-15 goal scorer throughout his NHL career. He's a very good penalty-killer and responsible defensively, making him a coveted third-line type by almost every team in the league. It's a skill set that, unlike those of Colton Orr's or John Scott's ilk, doesn't require the dropping of gloves or playing on the edge to cash an NHL paycheck.
As an 18-year-old, Cooke scored 45 goals in 1996-97 for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. Coincidentally, Cooke finished ninth in the league in scoring that season with 95 points, 35 fewer than the league's leading scorer that season, Savard.
Cooke was a member of Canada's world junior championship team in 1998 and represented his country at the World Championships in 2004.
A sixth-round pick in 1997, Cooke was never destined for individual awards or All-Star Game appearances, but the playing style he adopted certainly wasn't a necessity for him to have a long career.
Cooke had just one 100-minute PIM season during his first nine seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals, although he certainly wasn't an angel. Then he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2008-09 and saw his career go off the rails under coaches Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma. He had 101, 106 and 129 PIMs in his first three seasons, respectively, with the Penguins before he attempted to revamp his game starting in 2011-12.
And for a while, it worked.
Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo of the Star Tribune talked to Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson about Cooke and the hit, and his response is representative of the feelings of many players.
Everybody’s well-informed about who he is and what he does, it speaks for itself. There’s no place for that in the game. Look at the guy he hit, one of our top D, he’s going to be out for the foreseeable future. I don’t even know if there’s a place for [Cooke] in this game. It’s disgusting what he’s done to guys’ careers.
Cooke is gone for the remainder of this series but will be back if the Wild advance. The situation is far more dire for the Avalanche, who will be without their top-scoring defenseman for the rest of this series and perhaps the postseason. Cooke is a depth forward who can be replaced with far more ease than Barrie, who led the Avalanche defensemen with 13 goals this season.
Should Cooke step over the line in a similar fashion again, be it in this postseason or next season, he's likely staring down a double-digit-game suspension. The goodwill accumulated by Cooke with the league has disappeared for good.
The Barrie incident has resulted in videos of Cooke hits during that three-year window of cleanliness that attempt to show he had never changed, like a so-called kneeing incident on Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin this season. Cooke earned the right to have his career be consistently inspected by the most powerful of microscopes, but what he did to Barrie doesn't make conspiracy theorists who believe Cooke was trying to slice open the leg of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson any less insane.
Cooke fell off the wagon when he hit Barrie, no doubt about it. It's a sad day for all involved, including those of us who wanted to believe a person can change for the better once they hit rock bottom.
Instead of basking in the misery of this situation for your own personal benefit, perhaps an examination of why players like Cooke exist and why it's so hard for them to change would serve everyone better.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.