As Matt Cooke kept busy last winter by performing his usual song-and-dance of blindside hits and head shots on Penguins opponents, his wife, Michelle, was in the hospital battling a kidney infection. The ordeal, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was known by his teammates and coaches—and was enough of a distraction that Pens coach Dan Bylsma, "on several occasions, tapped Cooke on the shoulder during a game and asked, 'Are you with us, Matt?'" Though no one—not Bylsma, not Cooke—wanted to make any excuses for Cooke's actions. Nope. No way.
Cooke hasn't played since March 20, the day he delivered a flying elbow to Ryan McDonagh's head. The hit ultimately drew a 17-game suspension that carried into the playoffs. Michelle was out of the hospital by then, back for her first game in the stands again.
And the episode appears to have triggered something of a Road to Damascus moment for Cooke.
"Here I am trying to be strong enough to help her through this, and now I needed her support."
Cooke says he has looked at more than 20 hours of hits, in the hope of learning how to properly (and safely) execute them. And here's why:
He had not played an NHL game in five months and acknowledged the next could be his last—even if he unintentionally hits an opponent in the head.
He said he won't, that he owes that much to the most important people in his world: Michelle and children Gabby, Reece and Jackson.
If he cannot keep this pledge to play within the NHL's rules, the words he said in front of Michelle on Tuesday—"It all happens for a reason," he said—what would that say about him as a husband, a father?
"I don't want to hurt anybody," he said.
Cooke is also suddenly sensitive to what his children might have heard many people say about their father:
"I don't care what they say about me," he said, referring to opponents and the hockey media. "I can take it. I go back to, 'Stick and stones...' but names—hey, your kids hear the names."
Added Michelle: "You never get used to your kids hearing the things people say. He's seen that part of it."
"Stick and stones..." but names—hey, your kids hear the names. This is what it sounds like when a hockey player delivers his Checkers speech.
Photo via Pittsburgh Tribune-Review