Cooke reflects on Masterton nomination

| Sunday, March 18, 2012

PHILADELPHIA - Penguins left wing Matt Cooke required almost 24 hours to digest the fact that he had been nominated by the local media for the Masterton award, which goes to the NHL player who has overcome adversity while showing sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

He spoke about being humbled by the award two hours before the Penguins took on the Flyers in Philadelphia.

"It's different than most people who get recognized," Cooke said. "I didn't have to work through an injury to come back to the league."

But he did have to work.

Cooke, hockey's bad boy for much of his career, was suspended twice last season. He missed the final 17 games of the season — including all seven games in a first-round playoff setback against Tampa Bay — because of a life-altering suspension.

After the suspension, Cooke evaluated himself as a person and as a hockey player. And he made himself better.

Cooke has been an exemplary citizen on the ice all season, not even coming close to delivering a cheap shot.

"It's an ongoing process for me," he said. "It was a different process for me. It's never going to be over with. I'm honored. I'm thankful that I've had the support I've had from my teammates, the coaching staff, management, ownership, the fans, and my family, first and foremost. The help, and patience, and commitment to me have helped."

Cooke acknowledged that watching the Penguins lose in the playoffs against the Lightning last spring was a helpless feeling.

"To sit up top and not to be able to go out and help ... It's a different situation like Sid (Sidney Crosby) and Geno (Evgeni Malkin), when they were hurt," Cooke said. "They couldn't go. But I was healthy and sitting up there. It was a gut-wrenching feeling. I feel responsible to them. I said from the outset that I wouldn't put them in that situation again."

Cooke has been a man of his word.

He is playing the best hockey of his life, and following a 19-game streak without a goal, seems to have found the happy medium between being a physical player and being the old Matt Cooke.

This is the new Matt Cooke.

"The hardest part was when I got suspended," Cooke said. "It was coming to the realization that no matter what I did, if I didn't change my approach, nothing was going to change because the way I was playing was to go out and get the biggest hit. If I was going to continue to play that way, then the high risk was still there, and I felt like I had to eliminate that."

Cooke still studies his game on a regular basis to make sure he is playing an effective but clean game.

"At least a half hour the day after games," he said. "I'm watching all my shifts.

Sometimes, I watch a full game. I don't think that I'm out of that process of trying to maintain some sort of level of physical play as well as trying to help my team. There was a span that I felt like I was non-existent.

It's something that I have to work I said, it's an ongoing process, it's video, it's talking with coaches."

Cooke's change this season has been very clear, and many of his teammates and coaches have taken note. And while Cooke is a changed man, his intensity and desire to win remains.

The Penguins entered Sunday's game in Philadelphia with an 11-game winning streak. Cooke has not played in the playoffs in two years, and craves that time of year.

"We all play the game to win," Cooke said. "A really good friend of mine who plays for the Steelers, we talk about it sometimes with the kids, that who wins or loses doesn't matter. But if it didn't, why do we keep score• The playoffs are the time to win." In some ways, Cooke has already won.

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