Commentary

Matt Cooke proves change is possible

Updated: January 19, 2012, 3:08 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In a season that has seen a legion of top players felled by injury and the league's disciplinary machine yet again fall into disrepair after a promising start, the league's most infamous player goes about his business in relative anonymity.

That's assuming, of course, that a player as polarizing as Matt Cooke can ever really become anonymous.

Scott Hartnell's off-hand jab at Cooke during HBO's recent "24/7" documentary pretty much sums it up for many players and fans: "You're the dirtiest player in the league. Good job." But whether you loathe him or not, if more players were like Cooke there would be less players, well, like him.

Cooke has proven with his actions that it is possible for players to change their approach to the game to make the game safer. He is a shining example that thoughtfulness can actually win out over the heat-of-the-moment desire to absolutely destroy an opponent no matter the ramifications.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Penguins Matt Cooke
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireMatt Cooke has taken just 14 minutes in penalties thus far, putting him on pace for fewer than 30 for the season.

Under the unyielding spotlight that comes from being the most hated player in the game, Cooke seems to have replaced his seek-and-destroy muscle memory with something else entirely.

"If it was something I had to think about every night, then I wouldn't have the success that I'm having," Cooke told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I had to retrain myself to approach it differently and that's what helped me be successful to this point."

"I mean, I'm definitely in a better spot mentally towards the game and what I feel like I have to do as opposed to what I need to just go out there and do. ... And they're two different things. It's a comfort thing for sure."

These are confusing times for players like Cooke, players who have to play close to the edge to be effective, because that edge has in many ways become a moving target.

Cooke, of course, has found himself crisscrossing the line between effective and danger to hockey society many times in his career. The latest was last season's hit on Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers, which got Cooke suspended for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

The Penguins were knocked off in the first round by Tampa Bay in a seven-game series that the Pens led 3-1. It's not a stretch to suggest that with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out with injury, Cooke's presence might have made the difference in earning one more victory and advancing to the second round.

Faced with the reality that he'd run out of chances, Cooke set about changing the way he approached the game. He talked with the coaching staff and management immediately after the suspension. He watched video. He planned for ways to approach things differently. And he answered questions throughout training camp patiently -- even though he prefaced almost every answer with the caveat that talk was indeed cheap and his actions would tell the only story in this drama.

"Something just clicked for him," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com. "Obviously he put us in a tough hole last year. We missed him.

"He still puts the fear in people. But he's just much more responsible with how he's playing. There's a level of respect out there for the opponent that I don't know he had before.

"He does a really good job of keeping everything in check."

Halfway through the season, Cooke has been good to his word and the team has been rewarded for their patience with him.

Although injuries have threatened to derail another Cup run in Pittsburgh, Cooke has helped the team on all fronts, as a penalty killer, an energy player and an occasional power-play participant.

Cooke has taken just 14 minutes in penalties thus far, putting him on pace for fewer than 30 for the season. While it may not put him in Lady Byng territory, it would represent by far the lowest penalty minute totals in his career for a full season.

"I think if you watched him every day, I know his mindset to the game is different," head coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com. "I see the approach in his game in physical confrontations, I know it's different.

"I know that because I'm there every day and I see it. If you watch every day, but not everybody watches every day."

Former Penguin Mike Rupp and his family were close with Cooke and his family while the two were teammates. Now Rupp is a Ranger and has observed a change in the way Cooke responds to situations.

"Being his teammate, you could look at it from a couple of different sides," said Rupp, who is among the toughest players in the game. "A lot of fans don't care for him as a player, but you can see on the other side. He really was bothered by last year in a lot of different ways. You know looking in the guy's eyes that he wanted to change the way he played.

"He played a certain style and, when you play a certain way and you get praised for it for 10-plus years and then all of a sudden now you're this villain, it's tough. But you know, I know Cookie is the family guy that he is, he's a guy that wants to change and he did … I've talked to guys and they said that. His penalty minutes are really low, I've noticed. I've seen him take a couple of elbows as opposed to giving out a couple of elbows. I'm not surprised by it because I knew that he was really adamant about changing."

Another former teammate and now cross-state rival, Max Talbot, has also witnessed the "new" Cooke.

"I don't think it's a surprise," Talbot said. "Matt is a smart guy and he said he was going to change his game and he did. When you don't hear his name in the media, it's a good sign."

What makes the Cooke story so interesting is that no one, not Bylsma, Shero, his teammates or his opponents knew how this was going to play out.

"I mean, obviously you set goals and you set expectations, but I didn't know how things would go," Cooke said. "I mean, you just don't know. I'm pleased with the way the first 35, 36 games have gone."

But?

And you knew there was a "but" hanging in the air. Maybe there always will be for a player who carries the baggage Cooke does. We're not drawing a line from the way Cooke played the game before to an addiction, but there is more than a little "one day at a time" mantra that applies to Cooke's journey.

It only takes a moment, one momentary lapse, to destroy all this hard work.

And you know lots of people are waiting for that moment to arrive.

"He's still a physical, abrasive guy, a penalty-killing guy, a guy we count on in defensive situations," Bylsma said. "But I think the mindset he brings is different. That's what I see.

"Having said that, I don't think anybody (isn't), and is never probably going to be, not a wait-and-see. That's just kind of where we've come from. And that's something he has to play with. I think he still feels that a little bit sometimes, but his focus isn't there, his focus is on the game and being an effective player."

There are moments, Cooke confesses, that he wonders if maybe he's gone too far to the side of caution. He watches videotape and sees plays where maybe he's given away too much to stay on the right side of the line.

[+] EnlargeMarc Savard
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesThe image of Marc Savard being taken away on a stretcher after a blindside hit by Matt Cooke will not soon be forgotten by fans ... or Cooke.

"I think now I've taken it so far that now I think that there's times when I'm watching tape, oh, I could have hit there, I was fine to hit there," Cooke admitted. "I'm erring on the cautious side and I don't beat myself up about it, but I think that there's times when I could be a bit more physical and it's still going to be OK.

"I'm sure it is feeling your way. I'm sure it's a little bit of me thinking that I'm taking a risk still and I don't want to do that. I'm sure over time that'll come."

You're not going to find many people outside Cooke's sphere who will feel much compassion for him. The images of Marc Savard lying on the ice or Fedor Tyutin or McDonagh are difficult to erase.

They remain for Cooke, too.

How long will he have to continue answering questions about that past and his future? Who knows? More than half a season, that's for sure.

"I don't feel that talking about it is doing anything," Cooke said. "So not that I'm sick of it or that I think it's a waste of time, but I don't do it to get anything out of it. I'm not doing it for praise, I'm doing it because reporters are asking me. I'm not even that gullible to think that it affects people because it doesn't and that's fine. I'm not here looking for anyone else's approval except for my family's and my teammates', and that's what matters most."

Still, whatever people think of Cooke or say about him or to him, there has to be some grudging respect for a player who doesn't just talk about change, but delivers it. In a season with so many who seem incapable of that, it's refreshing.

"I don't know," Cooke acknowledged. "It's hard to shake things. It's hard to get rid of things."

He knows that the words are irrelevant even now and that the only proof of change that counts is in the next shift, and the shift after that, and the shift after that.

"As for whether I have to answer these questions next year or two years down the road, so be it, it doesn't matter; it hasn't changed my approach because I've had to answer all these questions or because there are still doubters," Cooke said. "I've said before, I'm not naive enough to think that people are just going to think that things are different now that they've been different for 36 games and whether they want to believe or not is completely up to them. I'm not that bothered by it."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.