Quiet Cooke: Wild left-winger not talking about controversy
ST. PAUL — Matt Cooke’s T-shirt was clean and his hat crisp, the tag only recently removed. He sat in a side room at Xcel Energy Center, a new member of the Minnesota Wild.
It was training camp, only September, but Cooke said he recognized what would happen with one errant elbow, one knee-to-knee hit — anything that would remind officials and fans of his previous life as one of the NHL’s most dreaded agitators.
As soon as that were to happen, there would be no hiding from the questions about whether there’s a place in the NHL for Cooke, about whether his highly touted transformation from cheap-shot artist to clean checker was little more than a publicity stunt. And Cooke knew it, and he said so in September.
Seven months later, after Cooke’s knee-to-knee hit on Colorado’s Tyson Barrie ended the defenseman’s season and earned him his first supplementary discipline in three years, Cooke wore a clean T-shirt and crisp hat — only this time embroidered with the Stanley Cup logo — and fielded the questions he anticipated last fall.
Yet Cooke wasn’t interested in answering them, not about the hit itself, not about his in-person hearing with NHL discipline chief Stephane Quintal, not about why he chose not to appeal his seven-game suspension.
“Honestly, I’m focused on Friday night, and that’s what’s most important right now,” Cooke said. “I’m not going to go back. You want to ask questions about this series, I’m all for it.”
Cooke appears set to suit up for the Wild for Game 4 on Friday at Xcel Energy Center as Minnesota tries to even its best-of-seven, second-round playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’ll do so with the widespread perception that his transformation — until April 11, he hadn’t earned supplemental discipline since 2011 — was a canard.
“I can’t change it,” Cooke said. “All I can do is go out and play the way that I play, build the stats that I built over the last three years within my game, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Cooke hasn’t played since Game 3 of the Wild’s opening-round series against the Avalanche, and it’s unclear who will be scratched to make room. He stood by his assertion that he is a changed player.
“Although this one situation happened, I still believe and know that I’m in a good spot as far as the way I approach the game to go out and play a physical style without being riskful,” Cooke said. “Obviously there’s the one situation that’s going to be in my head that it happened, but I’m a firm believer in the work that I’ve put in to change the style, to change my approach to the game, to allow me to go out and have success.”
Cooke says he used video analysis to help him make cleaner hits, and he had lowered his penalty minutes from a career-high 129 in 2010-11 to 44 (2011-12) and 36 (2012-13) until rising to 54 in his first season in Minnesota.
His previous suspension was 17 games for an elbow to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in 2011. That hit drew criticism from his own general manager, Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero, and, Cooke says, forced him to rethink his game.
“I’ve got to go back to the work I put in to this point, video-wise, game-wise, mentally-wise, to put myself in a position for success,” Cooke said.
Without Cooke in the lineup, the Wild still were able to eliminate the Avs in seven games. But while their checking has at times been outstanding, they have lacked the physical presence Cooke provides.
“In a lot of ways, (he brings) the things that we’re missing right now,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s a guy that’s difficult to play against, not just because of his physicality. He’s a strong checking forward and gets to the offensive zone, goes to the net and is an important part of our penalty kill, too.”
Cooke was one of just three Wild players to play in all 82 regular-season games. Forced to watch the past seven, he joked that he might have “earned myself an ulcer.”
“Obviously, the team’s played great, but it’s tough to sit and watch,” Cooke said. “I pride myself on being a guy that performs and has a game built for the playoffs, and it’s not fun to sit and watch.”
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