Cooke's story puts his season in perspective
Matt Cooke couldn't get anybody to answer his wife's cell phone.
About 600 miles separated him from his wife, who was lying in a hospital bed at UPMC Mercy, Uptown. She had fallen ill a day after the Winter Classic, another presumed reoccurrence of a kidney infection. Four days later, as her husband — one of the most infamous players in the NHL for his controversial hits — was frantically calling before a game-day breakfast with Penguins teammates in Montreal, Michelle Cooke was dying.
"I get a hold of a doctor, and he says, 'I think you should come back right now,' " Cooke said. "I got there, and they've got a chaplain giving her the blessing (for recovery) and our kids are in that room."
Seven months later, Cooke warmly gripped his wife's right hand during a lunch at Aviva Brick Oven Pizzeria in Warrendale. He had not played an NHL game in five months and acknowledged the next could be his last — even if he unintentionally hits an opponent in the head.
He said he won't, that he owes that much to the most important people in his world: Michelle and children Gabby, Reece and Jackson.
If he cannot keep this pledge to play within the NHL's rules, the words he said in front of Michelle on Tuesday — "It all happens for a reason," he said — what would that say about him as a husband, a father?
"I don't want to hurt anybody," he said.
So, Cooke said, he has "changed (his) approach" to hitting. He said he never wants to again do what he has done to opponents such as Marc Savard, Fedor Tyutin or Ryan McDonagh — the latter of whom he caught with an elbow to the head late last season, an illegal blow that brought upon Cooke a 17-game suspension.
He said will still hit, but only "the right way," and not because he believes his return to the NHL is under zero-tolerance terms, even though he said nobody with the Penguins or league has used those words.
No more elbows. No more blindside shots. No more of the hits that have garnered him the reputation as the NHL's dirtiest player, a so-called cheap-shot artist who has been suspended four times for illegal hits in three seasons since joining the Penguins.
A week after Cooke delivered what he said was an unintentional left elbow to McDonagh's head on March 20, Penguins teammate Jordan Staal said emphatically that Cooke "is not a monster like some people think."
Having heard his teammate's defense of him Tuesday, Cooke pursed his lips, looked at his wife, then lowered his voice.
"I don't care what they say about me," he said, referring to opponents and the hockey media. "I can take it. I go back to, 'Stick and stones...' but names — hey, your kids hear the names."
Added Michelle: "You never get used to your kids hearing the things people say. He's seen that part of it."
The real-world impact of his hockey life was as easy to miss for Cooke as it is any professional athlete. Until his wife's 10-day hospitalization in January, his responsibility during the season was, by Michelle's admission, to concentrate on playing hockey.
However, from Jan. 2 through March 20, the day doctors cleared Michelle to again attend a Penguins game, Cooke never had a chance to take a breath. His wife, who had four surgical procedures to remove a mass three-quarters inch in diameter that clogged her left kidney's exit valve and infected her lungs and diaphragm, couldn't take a deep one.
Game-day naps were jettisoned for tending to Reece, 10, and Jackson, 7. (Gabby, 18, was attending high school near Bellville, Ontario.) Practices were a brief respite from handling the duties of father and mother while Michelle recovered.
Work never came home with Cooke, who didn't tell his wife he had been suspended four games for a Feb. 8 check from behind on Tyutin. He did not disclose that Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, on several occasions, tapped Cooke on the shoulder during a game and asked, "Are you with us, Matt?"
Bylsma said he has asked Cooke and other Penguins that question before, but he conceded the circumstances with Cooke were different.
"We knew what he was dealing with," Bylsma said. "He never would use it as an excuse for anything."
Cooke said Tuesday that one point must be made clear.
"I don't use (Michelle's health) as an excuse for anything that happened last season," he said. "I'm responsible for my actions out there."
Still, Michelle described her husband as "exhausted, not himself."
"He wasn't used to this," she said. "Before, it was him playing hockey and me being home with the kids, and it wasn't that way when I was sick. He wouldn't let it be that way. He was never getting any rest."
He saw a light in mid-March, though. Michelle attended her first game since the Classic. She, her mom and a friend were at Consol Energy Center when the Penguins faced the New York Rangers in an afternoon contest March 20.
That was the last game Cooke played.
"We finally had a chance to take a deep breath," he said. "Michelle was finally going back to a game and ..." He paused to reflect on the McDonagh hit. "Here I am trying to be strong enough to help her through this, and now I needed her support."
Cooke said he has reviewed 20 hours of hits — his own and those by others such as Rangers forward Ryan Callahan — so he could learn how to deliver a legal check.
Cooke said his new approach to hitting would have changed the way he approached McDonagh. He could have gone after the puck — McDonagh was in the process of dumping the puck from the neutral zone into the offensive zone — with his stick blade. Cooke said if he "had to hit (McDonagh), I'd hit his hands with my body.
"It wasn't intentional," he said, "but there is no excuse."
Cooke, unlike after previous controversial hits, asked Penguins general manager Ray Shero if he could attend a discipline hearing the next day in Toronto. He didn't try to excuse his behavior before NHL brass, Shero said.
Cooke even sent an apologetic text to McDonagh.
"Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit," Michelle said. "That was the difference I noticed. This (hit) bothered him."
She said her health scare and the brief change in his in-season dynamic with the kids provided her husband "perspective."
That perspective, Cooke said, is the reason to believe he is a changed man, that he can play hockey the right way.
He is aware the proof will be in his play. He knows he cannot slip up.
He maintains this Matt Cooke is different.
"I'm sure it all happens for a reason," he said. "It all affects you in one way or another. I can't pinpoint and say when (Michelle) was in the hospital and immediately after hitting (McDonagh) that there was this moment, but ...
"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that."