By Stu Hackel
In general, the rankings of the most despised player in the NHL have Sean Avery at the top of the list. Matt Cooke is gaining ground fast.
Cooke the Penguin isn’t a yapper like the Rangers’ Unsavory Avery (well, no one is), Alex Burrows of the Canucks, the Stars’ Steve Ott, Vern Fiddler of the Coyotes, the Canadiens’ P.K. Subban and the Flyers’ Chris Pronger. No, Cooke is a heat seeking missile who hunts down opponents and delivers devastating hits that sometimes cross the line. He’s not silent out there but, for Cooke, action speaks louder than words.
And what action! Cooke was, of course, the perpetrator of the now-infamous blindside hit on the Bruins Marc Savard (video) that has put Savard’s career in jeopardy. At the time, it was a legal hit, but it helped push the league’s GMs to propose what eventually became Rule 48.
The Savard hit was just the start of Cooke’s rise to the top of the antipathy index. It seems that since then he’s become a serial rulebreaker with a rap sheet that includes two beauties this week — and it’s only Wednesday. On Sunday, Cooke went knee-on-knee with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin…
…for which he got only two minutes for tripping. Then on Tuesday night in the first period against the Blue Jackets, Cooke exploded into Fedor Tyutin, clearly leaving his feet to make the check…
….and was assessed a five-minute major for charging (plus another five for his subsequent fight with Derick Brassard). The argument that Cooke, his teammates, and coach Dan Bylsma made (which you can read in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) was that Tyutin turned his back late to draw the penalty. Their case might have more traction had Cooke’s skates stayed on the ice.
Cooke trended on Twitter worldwide on Tuesday night, and fans certainly hate him in Boston, where he was still trending today. He also was trending into Wednesday in Canada and also Philadelphia, where they’ve never been particularly fond of him, either. And if you’d like to hear two different perspectives on Cooke and his Tyutin hit, you can listen to the sentiments of Jeremy Roenick (audio) and Denis Potvin (audio) both of whom guested on XM’s NHL Home Ice radio this morning with Mike Ross. Roenick, always good for a quote, calls Cooke’s hit “chicken shit.” Potvin, ever the old school guy who wants to roll back the rulebook, thinks Tyutin’s defense partner Jan Hejda should be held accountable for not holding up Cooke on the forecheck, even though that might be an interference penalty.
It may be coincidental that the Pens lost both games in which Cooke went about his business, but with their lineup already badly depleted up front, he might be advised to spend as little time in the penalty box as possible.
It’s not that Cooke is a lousy hockey player. On the contrary, he’s a very useful and aggressive winger who skates well, never takes a shift off, forechecks effectively, has very good defensive instincts, kills penalties and knows how to agitate the opposition. I’ve watched him since early in his career with Vancouver. He was, perhaps, my favorite player on a very underrated Canucks team that had strong regular season results but couldn’t advance far in the playoffs, especially in 2002 when it was ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. He’s always played on the edge, but it seems that this season he has gone over it a bit more than usual. His 106 penalty minutes are only five shy of his career high set in 2001-02 and he should blow past that total soon.
Not right away, however, because Cookie had a little conversation this morning with NHL VP Colin Campbell and will be taking a time out for four games. It’s too bad. His team needs him. But he hasn’t been playing well with others.
The ruling on Cooke was delayed because Hockey Operations also had to rule on the Devils’ Anton Volchenkov, the latest villain of Head Shot Theater, who delivered this beauty with his elbow to the head of the Hurricanes Zach Boychuk…
…which earned a three-game suspension. It hardly seems sufficient for such an obviously intentional and dangerous foul. But, as we noted on Monday, no one seems to want long suspensions that would send the message that illegal blows to the head won’t be tolerated in the NHL. So Headshot Theater continues its bang-up business at the box office.