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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Matt Cooke And The Myth Of Reform

Colorado's two-way defenseman Tyson Barrie, who's been one of this series's best players, will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an MCL injury after this knee-on-knee hit from Matt Cooke. Cooke will miss some time too—he's got an in-person hearing scheduled with the league, which means his suspension can exceed five games. Small consolation for the Avalanche, but a big stick in the spokes of the narrative surrounding the "reformed" Cooke.


Avs coach Patrick Roy said he believes that play swung the game, a 1-0 Minnesota overtime win to cut Colorado's lead to a game.

"A knee on Tyson Barrie, without a doubt, that's the play of the game,'' Roy said. "We lost our best offensive defenseman, and I think it could have been a five-minute major. Plus, I think that would have broken [the Wild's] momentum."


After a 17-game suspension in March 2011, Cooke vowed to change his ways. And he's avoided DOPS since then. But the complication for Cooke was that he was never going to be able to become completely different player and remain in the NHL. His value is in his nuisance—if he stopped hitting, he'd stop being effective. Cooke's reform was always going to be a matter of degree.

"The way I played before was to get the biggest hit possible every time no matter what," he said in 2012. "That's the way I was taught. That's the way I had success."

He has stayed largely within the bounds of decency since then, occasionally pushing them like when he pancaked Adam McQuaid and (accidentally) sliced Erik Karlsson's Achilles tendon. But the hitting wasn't going to stop. He led the Wild in hits this season, this series, and had six in last night's game alone. He hits to force pressure and to implant that fear in his opponents. It's a very real and very effective skill.

So Matt Cooke was going to hit Tyson Barrie last night. He had made up his mind, and he followed through even after Barrie got rid of the puck and swerved to avoid contact. Cooke stuck out a knee, looking to salvage his hit, and Barrie's knee was wrecked. Cooke, who has spent three years on the right side of the line, crossed it.


The problem with judging Cooke and his recidivism is one of degrees. He's been slotted into neat dualist categories, either a model citizen, or a lurking menace. For the league and Cooke's champions, he's proof that the NHL's pests can change. For detractors like Adrian Dater, his act was just a "coordinated PR plan by Cooke and his handlers," and he'll die lonely and regretful after "a career of selling his hockey soul to the hockey devil." One or the other; black or white.

The shades of gray are more boring and closer to the truth. This is a guy who realized his value long before he made it to the NHL, and enjoyed a decade-long career based off his hitting before his style threatened to see him pushed out of the league at a time player safety was becoming all-important. Less an old dog learning new tricks than a player struggling to control his worst impulses, Cooke did an solid job of reining himself in—three years without a suspension speaks to that. But he's not a fundamentally different hockey player. He's still the guy whose first instinct is to square up for the hit. He's a dirty player trying his damndest to suppress his dirty play, but last night the reptilian brain won out.

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