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Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Can Matt Cooke really change his game?

By Scott Burnside

PITTSBURGH -- And so the great experiment that is the rehabilitation of Matt Cooke begins.

Arguably the most hated man in the NHL, Cooke was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games of 2010-11 and the first round of the playoffs.

A chastened Cooke spent the ensuing weeks and months preparing to remake himself and change his hockey DNA so he could stay in the game.

Matt Cooke
Matt Cooke says he has changed his on-ice approach to one where he's not always going for "the big hit."

Now it's going to be time to figure out if such a radical makeover is possible.

"I'm interested in seeing what the product is going to be on the ice from Matt Cooke and where his mindset's going to be at," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recently told reporters. "I know Matt is in a different position now mentally. He's in a different position in his focus on being a physical player and what he's looking for and what aspects of hitting he can still do and be within the guidelines and with a new mindset."

We admit we have a soft spot for the gritty Pittsburgh Penguins winger. Two springs ago, a couple of months after he laid out Marc Savard with a hit that can be directly linked to what is likely the end of Savard's career, we sat with Cooke at the Bell Centre in Montreal and talked about the perceptions of him. We spoke of his wife, Michelle, former teammates and general managers like Brian Burke. He is universally described as a good friend and teammate and husband.

But Cooke has also established himself as a dangerous player with a reputation for exploiting vulnerable opponents with dirty hits.

With the memory of the Savard hit in March 2010 still fresh, last season marked a seminal moment for Cooke, the Penguins and possibly the league, as NHL officials wrestled with how to make the game safer. Across the league, there was a clarion call for stiffer penalties for players like Cooke. The Penguins themselves called for stiffer penalties in the wake of an ugly display against the New York Islanders.

Then, in early February, Cooke leveled Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind and was suspended for four games. A little more than a month later, he decked New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh with an elbow and was suspended for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

"My changes are for me and my family and for my teammates and our organization, because I hurt them last year," Cooke said. "I let them down and I feel that."

Give Cooke credit for acknowledging his mistakes and outlining plans to reinvent himself. But talk, as they say, is cheap, and the proof will be in whether Cooke can put into practice his plans to approach the game differently.

Cooke, for one, doesn't see the process as being all that radical.

"I don't describe it as a makeover. I still have the body shape and physique that I have. What it is, is a change in my approach," Cooke said. "We're into analogies, so let's relate it to golf. Most pro golfers, when they're inside 30 yards, they use a lob wedge and they flop it to within three or four feet. Most amateurs can't do that. They take a 7-iron and they bump and run.

"I'm changing my approach. I always went for the big hit. Whenever I had a chance to hit, I tried to make it as impactful as I could, trying to stay within the rules. The problem with that is, there are a lot of situations during that game where that approach didn't allow for much room for error and, in a hurry, things can go bad. That's only been proven more and more -- the more I watch video, the more I watch other games, the more I watch other players."

He knows the issue will continue to be debated until the games actually start, and beyond; that's the reality of his past.

"It's not frustrating [being asked about the issue] because I know and understand the situation I'm in," Cooke told reporters this past weekend. "I also know the situation the media is in. Like I said yesterday, I can sit here and talk about it until I'm blue in the face. I'm not that naive to believe that's where it stops."

Skeptics -- and there are many -- believe such change will be impossible, that playing recklessly is inherent to Cooke's nature, and by changing that, he will cease to be himself and cease to be an effective player.

The 33-year-old Cooke, however, likens the process to a lawyer preparing a case.

"I not curious about it because I think when you're prepared, when you put the work in, you can relate it to any athlete, you can relate it to a lawyer or anybody you want," he said. "When they do the preparation and they put the time and effort in before a trial, before camp, sure, there's some anxious moments before; but when push comes to shove, they're ready and they're prepared. They go out and do what they have to do.

"That's how I feel right now. It's not like I said the things I said after I was handed my suspension and was like, that will just happen. That has not been the case and a lot of people can attest to that."

Remember this: Cooke's transgressions do not necessarily define him as a player. He and Jordan Staal formed one of the toughest penalty-killing duos in the NHL over the past few seasons. He has decent scoring skills and is one of the most aggressive forecheckers in the league.

"I think he's also ready to come back to our team and help in the areas that make him a good hockey player for our team, being a penalty killer, being a leader in that regard," Bylsma said. "He's a guy who's an aggressive player for us and he leads the charge in the offensive zone and in and around the net. So what's the product's going to be? We're going to have training camp to figure that out a little bit. But his mindset, his preparation going into this season in terms of being a physical player is much different than it has been."

If Cooke is able to complete his rehabilitation, it will be a bonus for the Penguins. It will also be a strong signal across the league that players can adjust and there is a way to get the job done without the carnage.