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The Real Deal

March 21, 2011

Penguins’ Cooke, pictured here at the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

It seems all but official: the NHL is now taking targeted shots to the head seriously. And, more specifically, they are taking seriously the scourge that is Matt Cooke. This afternoon, after many hours in the dark following Cooke’s 1:30PM EST hearing in Toronto with the league disciplinarians, it was announced that he was handed a suspension for the remainder of the regular season through the first round of the playoffs.

In moments the Penguins will be facing off against the Red Wings absent their perennial pest and tough man. It’s a big match-up, but, by the same token, Pittsburgh and Detroit have all but assured themselves playoff spots. A bigger question is what do the Penguins look absent now not just Crosby and Malkin, but Cooke.

It is a maxim of team planning that each club ought to have a resident agitator or enforcer. Mind you, those two players are very different breeds, though they occasionally appear in the form of a single player. The agitator draws penalties, gets the opposing team frustrating and generally proves to be a nuisance on the ice. And, from time to time, doles out questionable hits. The enforcer settles scores, whether they be those put out by the agitator or other players, drops the gloves and protects his teammates. The latter is a more accepted reality of hockey than the former.

But, is it possible for a team, for hockey, to operate in the absence of such a player, and to operate successfully? Perhaps, it is desirable, even? Those are the questions which should be getting asked by every GM in the league right now. The issue is not the length of Cooke’s suspension, or its merit, though, it seems already to be widely lauded. The Penguins have made a few good moves already—by supporting the league’s decision and telling Cooke to cool his jets. Mario Lemieux has put his money where his mouth is. But, how do they handle Cooke in the long-term? Do they tell him to change his play?

That’s the bigger question. Unlike the early suspension questions of the season, including that of Trevor Gillies, Cooke has real hockey skill and an ability to contribute and create for the Penguins. But like Gillies, he’s among the small class of players that plays to injure, plays to harm. But will, and is he able, to forfeit a significant aspect of his game? And will the Penguins’ management, and the league, not just encourage that, but reward it?

It’s not just a few players here and there, a few personnel changes, a few suspensions. There will need to be a fundamental reassessment of the role of players like Cooke in the league that will be needed for things to change.


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