Eric Majeski, more commonly known as “netwolf” is a moderator at LetsGoPens.com and a good friend of Faceoff-Factor’s.

Yes, you read that right. Matt Cooke, NHL Posterboy. And yes, I am speaking of that Matt Cooke, currently playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The same guy who drew the ire of the NHL (and garnered hate league-wide) for, among other things:

  • hitting New York Ranger forward Artem Anisimov high
  • delivering a vicious (yet legal at the time, per Colin Campbell) headshot to Boston Bruin centerman Marc Savard
  • boarding Columbus Blue Jacket defenseman Fedora Tyutin
  • delivering an elbow to head of Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonough

As we all know, the last one was the breaking point for the NHL, at least with regards to Cooke, as they dropped the hammer on him. He was suspended for the rest of the season and the entire first round of the 2011 playoffs, a punishment which ended up totaling 17 games. Given how tight the series with Tampa Bay was and Cooke’s value as a penalty killer, it’s not a stretch to suggest this suspension cost the Pens a second round berth.

Cooke, already hated around the league, shot to the top spot on the NHLs Most Hated List. Columnists across North America wanted him out of the league. Hockey fans echoed those thoughts. Some Penguin fans questioned whether he was worth the trouble. Others called for him to be moved by any means necessary.

All of this hit home with Cooke. He asked permission to take a leave from the team, which was granted. During this time, he sought counseling and we later heard regret and promises of reform from the repentant Penguin.

Those comments were met with loads of skepticism, predictably (and perhaps even justifiably) so. There are countless examples of broken promises, both inside and out of hockey. Cooke had played on the edge his entire career, how could he possibly change now? Even if he truly wanted too (which some were also skeptical of), it seemed like an extremely tall order. I had my doubts. I took him at his word regarding his desire to change, but I thought sooner or later, he’d find himself in trouble again, even if it was something accidental.

Today, the Penguins are at the midway point of the season. Cooke has played all 41 games. No suspensions, no fines, and he hasn’t done anything to even warrant a second look by Brendan Shanahan, the NHLs new Dean of Discipline. And while his hits per game are down from last year (1.80 vs. 2.87), he’s still playing a physical game. He’s still an effective penalty killer and despite his recent cold streak, he’s on pace for 14 goals and 12 assists, both of which are in line with the past few years.

The most remarkable stat however, is him being on pace for 28 penalty minutes. No, I did not forget a trailing zero, you read that right. That would be his lowest season total since his rookie season in 1998-99 with Vancouver, when he racked up 27 in just 30 games. That’s an incredible drop from the 129 he accumulated in 67 games last year. Just in case that isn’t impressive enough, factor in two other factors. First, Cooke never gets the benefit of the doubt from officials. If a referee even thinks he fouled someone, the arm is going up. Secondly, that reputation has seemingly allowed opponents to take liberties against him, yet he’s been able to prevent that frustration from landing him in the box.

By now, I’m sure many of you are wondering what happened to my original point. It was about Matt Cooke being a posterboy for the NHL (I think. I ramble sometimes). If you haven’t figured out where I’m going with this don’t feel bad. The NHL hasn’t realized it yet either. Or maybe they don’t want to.

Permit me one more tangent in the name of Raffi Torres to get us there. The Phoenix forward has a history of questionable hits as well. Earlier this season, he committed acts that got the league’s attention in three straight games, yet for them he received nothing for the first, a $2500 fine for the second, and a two game suspension for the third. The fine is meaningless; it would be the equivalent of fining me $10 for doubling the speed limit. The suspension was too little, too late, especially given his track record.

For the most part, I like the job Shanahan is doing. If nothing else, the video explanations make their reasoning clear, even if you don’t agree with it. That said, his rulings have gotten much less severe as the season’s progressed. He needs to get back to nailing these guys, and if players, coaches, general managers, owners, fans, or media complain, you point them at Matt Cooke.

Here’s a guy that was universally hated. He was dirty; a predator. He hit to hurt people. He had played that way for years; there’s no reforming a guy like that. It’s just not possible, or so most of us thought. The NHL may have dropped the hammer on him more because of them being tired of him and not necessarily of what he was doing, but there’s no questioning the result. Matt Cooke is a changed player, and he’s still an effective one.

Lots of people all around the league don’t want to see it because of how vilified Cooke was/is, but that’s exactly why Shanahan and the NHL Department of Player Safety need to use him as an example. Start really hammering guys for dangerous hits. It works. Matt Cooke is proof. He’s made a remarkable turnaround, and while it doesn’t erase his past, he does deserve credit for it. Matt Cooke, shining example. Sounds a little less ridiculous now, doesn’t it?