Cooke to Kaleta: I can help you change

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
4:00
PM ET
TORONTO -- Matt Cooke saw Patrick Kaleta waiting for former Sabres teammate Jason Pominville after Monday night’s game in Buffalo, so he decided to introduce himself.

The two players didn’t know each other.

But knowing that Kaleta faced an in-person hearing with Brendan Shanahan the next day, Cooke wanted to let Kaleta know that he knew how he felt.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cooke
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesFor years, Matt Cooke found himself crisscrossing the line between effective and danger to hockey society.
"I told him, 'I’ve been there, it’s not fun.’ It’s hard," Cooke told ESPN.com Tuesday night after his Minnesota Wild lost 4-1 in Toronto.

The real reason Cooke wanted to say hi was he had a message for him.

"I laid it out there that if he wants to know what I did, I’d gladly talk to him about it," said Cooke, the NHL’s poster boy as proof former repeat offenders can reform. "He knows Pommer, so I told him `If you want to get hold of me, I’m there to talk.’"

In the 2010-11 season, Cooke was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs for an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. But Cooke returned to the game a changed player. It’s the challenge that now faces Kaleta after his 10-game suspension Tuesday, the biggest one of his career, one which resulted from an illegal check to the head of Jack Johnson. (As I expected, Kaleta is appealing the suspension, his agent Anton Thun confirmed.) If Kaleta is ever called on the carpet again, it’s going to be an even bigger whopper; so this is it for him, adjust your game or else.

It’s not easy, but it’s doable, Cooke said.

"During my suspension, with either [Dan] Bylsma or [Tony] Granato, I probably watched about 30 or 40 hours of video; watching players that play a physical style," Cooke recalled.

"The hours of video work I did seriously helped me," he added. "The work that I put in has helped me not only take the risky plays out but also become a more effective player. I’ve got a way more active stick on the forecheck, and I’m more aware of my surroundings, which has helped me offensively."

He indeed returned a transformed player in 2011-12, colleague Scott Burnside documenting it that season. But it wasn’t easy. Cooke remembers that season when a player dove into the boards after he barely touched him.

"My heart was racing," Cooke said. "I thought I was getting suspended. But before I was even off the ice Brendan [Shanahan] had called [Penguins GM] Ray Shero to tell him he knew I didn’t touch the guy. That reassured me."

With time, Cooke grew more confident in the way he approached the game.

"It’s never going to be over for me, and I realize that, and I’m fine with that," Cooke said. "Right now, I err on the side of caution. I still watch video to reassure that there are good times to go out and be physical. ...

"It’s just a read. If you don’t change the way you visually see the game, then change is impossible."

He’s been a welcome addition in Minnesota after signing with the Wild as a free agent in July.

"Matt brings so much to the table for us," Wild head coach Mike Yeo told ESPN.com Wednesday. "We were looking for a physical player who could play in a checking role and provide some secondary scoring. Those players are hard to find, and he has brought it all. It says an awful lot about him that he has been able to adjust his game. Some guys would be unwilling, some would be willing but incapable. He is a smart guy."

Former NHL GM Craig Button, now an analyst for TSN and the NHL Network, said the Penguins’ management deserved great credit for helping rehab Cooke as well as Shanahan for working with the player. And he said Cooke remains an effective player.

"A smart, good skating player who can read plays," Button said. "He is a strong penalty killer and can make good offensive plays. He is a determined player who gets involved and is one who can contribute in those areas that are not flashy but incredibly important to winning. The Penguins PK has been very good a number of times in terms of ranking and he was a big part of that. So he brings all those qualities [to Minnesota] without any of the dangerous part and that makes him a valuable and contributing member of a team."

Cooke leads the Wild in scoring with six points (3-3) in seven games and has yet to pick up a penalty minute this season.

"There’s a huge difference in the way I approach the game now. The days of just going for the big hit, every time possible, is just not feasible," Cooke said. "The way the game is played now, the speed of the game, and the way the kids are taught to play the game."

He then recalled a play Monday night in Buffalo, a "close one," as Cooke put it, with Sabres defenseman Mike Weber.

"Weber turned his back last second, I bear hugged him and we smashed into the boards," Cooke said. "I tried not to hit him but I still did because he turned at the last second."

The point being, that even with all the best intentions, the game is 100 miles per hour, and sometimes it’s hard to react in time to avoid a scary play.

But Cooke believes that with the way he approaches the game now, he’s cut down on the number of situations that could get him into trouble.

"If it’s reasonably low risk that I can go in and get a decent hit and not worry anything bad will happen, then I will," he said. "That’s not to say anything bad won’t ever happen, but the odds of anything bad happening are totally different."

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