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Monday, March 21, 2011
Matt Cooke's suspension, and reaction to it, now sets standard for NHL

By Scott Burnside


First, let us give credit where credit is due.

After staggering around the discipline forest much like the proverbial blind squirrel, the league finally found something approaching an answer Monday afternoon.

By suspending Pittsburgh's serial headhunter Matt Cooke for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for his nasty elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on Sunday, the league set the gold standard for punishing blows to the head.

The incident in question wasn't as bad as other hits we've recently seen (for our money, the Pavel Kubina elbow on Dave Bolland two weeks ago and Brad Marchand hit on R.J. Umberger last week were more egregious), but this was about Cooke's body of work, not just one incident.

And for failing to alter his behavior, he was rewarded with a big-time suspension.

Last week, the NHL's GMs asked for this kind of suspension when they met in Florida. The implication was the GMs were looking for this kind of discipline to kick in next season. Then, in a matter of days, the league suspended three players for elbows to the head, including Cooke.

At the risk of giving the league a rash in the middle of its collective back with relentless praise, we will stop. This was as easy as it gets in terms of hammering the message home. It was almost as easy as suspending Chris Simon for his stick attack on Ryan Hollweg four seasons ago.

Matt Cooke
Monday's suspension was the fifth of Matt Cooke's NHL career and his fourth since January 2009.

Remember the blind squirrel? Well, this would have taken some bumbling not to get it right given Cooke's history and the timing of the hit on McDonagh. And this really counts as getting it right only if it becomes something else: a benchmark, a standard against which others will be punished.

Still, it was an inspired decision to keep Cooke out of the playoffs when a player with his skill set (let's not forget the man owns a Stanley Cup ring and is one of the top penalty killers on the NHL's top penalty-killing team) truly earns his keep. Cooke's selfish hit will punish his pocketbook (he will forfeit $219,512.20 to the players' emergency assistance fund) and his teammates, players he loves and who, in general, love him. That is the deepest cut of all.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their role in this.

Everyone knows the backstory here. Owner Mario Lemieux publicly slammed the league for not handling the New York Islanders/Penguins dustup to his liking several months ago. The letter was ill-planned and earned Lemieux as much scorn as praise in large part because he did not acknowledge that his own team might be part of the larger problem facing the league.

But Lemieux redeemed himself when he sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last week, proposing a series of fines to clubs based on players' reckless behavior. In the letter to Bettman, obtained by ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, Lemieux noted his own club would have been fined $600,000 under his plan of accountability -- and that was before Cooke's latest escapade.

Then, in the wake of Cooke's suspension Monday, the Penguins answered the bell again, publicly agreeing with the decision.

"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey," GM Ray Shero said in a statement. "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

If the Cooke suspension is to be the gold standard for how the league deals with repeat offenders in the head shot category -- or frankly in any kind of repeat offense -- the Penguins set the gold standard in how to respond.

The tried and true response, sadly, is just the opposite: to circle the wagons.

Look back at how teams like the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders and even the Boston Bruins (who lost top center Marc Savard's services for the balance of this season in large part because of Cooke's blindside hit last season) responded to far lighter suspensions to players like Joe Thornton, Curtis Glencross, Daniel Paille and Trevor Gillies. They whined. They rationalized. They whined some more.

In trying to support their own players, those teams did a disservice to every one of their players that has ever been the victim of a dirty or questionable hit. In the name of loyalty, they undermined the entire process of trying to clean up the league.

Even when some players like Boston's Andrew Ference had the temerity to suggest his teammate Paille deserved to be suspended, he was thrown under the bus in some quarters for not blindly supporting players on his own team.

We have habitually hammered the league's dean of discipline, Colin Campbell, for how he has handled his job. We suggested last week he should step down if the league is serious about establishing a new mindset about discipline and on-ice behavior. We still think it's the right call. But the GMs around the league defy those efforts every time they complain.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't take the well-worn path. They did what was right. They were honest. And don't think for a minute it was easy.

The Penguins will presumably welcome Cooke back to their dressing room if they survive the first round and will need to be on the same page if they want to move on in the playoffs. Unless they buy him out or trade him or send him to the minors next season, he'll be back in the dressing room chasing another Stanley Cup.

"[Cooke] takes full responsibility. He sent Ryan McDonagh a text," Shero told local reporters before Monday's game against the Red Wings. "The words are great, but it's going to be your actions when you come back as a player and still be a productive player in the league. That's going to be up to Matt Cooke."

There may be hard feelings, the kind of hard feelings teams work hard to ensure don't exist within their own dressing rooms. But if people are truly interested in making the game safer, then everyone has to be accountable, including the players in your own room wearing your jersey.

So, here's hoping the NHL will continue to send strong messages when it comes to head shots.

And here's hoping the Pittsburgh Penguins become the rule not the exception when it comes to acknowledging that everyone has to be part of the solution ... everyone, even one of your own.