NHL violence concerns former Penguins' pest Cooke

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

Matt Cooke flashed the same toothless grin, dished out his customary ornery barbs to the media and didn't deny the possibility of sneaking into the Penguins locker room to orchestrate a prank.

And, yet, hockey's former bad boy turns serious when discussing the violence that has erupted around the NHL.

Cooke, who played against the Penguins on Thursday for the first time since signing with the Minnesota Wild in July, expressed concern for the state of the league.

“With the speed that today's game is played in,” Cooke said, “I think that if you play recklessly at all, you can't guarantee yourself that you won't be suspended.”

Cooke has been suspended five times in his career, four of those during his five seasons with the Penguins.

However, Cooke hasn't been punished by the league since summer 2011, when he underwent life and career alterations that have led to his cleaner play on the ice.

“Unless you're willing to make at least minor tweaks (to your game), you're at risk now,” Cooke said. “That's what I feel. The league is watching now more than ever. They have a great staff in place to manage every game, every night.”

It's been a busy staff.

The NHL has suspended 10 players this month, including right wing James Neal and defenseman Deryk Engelland of the Penguins.

Cooke, meanwhile, has played clean hockey during the past three seasons.

“I know that it's a continuing learning process for me,” said Cooke, who still delivers big hits but not the controversial ones that turned him into a villain around the league.

“I look at video all the time to ensure myself. It took a realization for me to understand that the change had to come from the onset. I think there are near misses. A lot of things can go bad in a short window. It's a tough situation. But I think the league does a great job of trying to have control.”

Cooke touched on plenty of other topics, from Sidney Crosby's brilliance to his new team's outstanding play.

The only thing Cooke wouldn't speak about was a former teammate.

Right wing James Neal returned to the lineup after a five-game suspension, the third time he has been suspended in his career.

Asked whether Neal's tendencies were similar to his when he was 26, Cooke shook his head “no” and remained silent.

The trip back to Consol Energy Center clearly was a special one for Cooke.

“The fans make you feel like you're a Pittsburgher forever,” Cooke said. “They supported me through tough times. Unfortunately, this is a business and I play for the Minnesota Wild now.”

Cooke said Pittsburgh fans are the most “respectful” he's ever encountered, and, while making clear that he wanted his Wild to earn the victory, also said part of his heart remains with the organization that made him a better person. The Penguins recognized Cooke during the game's first commercial timeout.

“I'll forever be thankful for the support that I had here from the coaching staff, players, media and fans,” Cooke said. “That's something that won't change.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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