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Pens' Cooke gives Unity teen boost in struggle to walk

By Jennifer Reeger
Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

Some call Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke a goon.

They say he's a dirty player. A cheap shot artist. A pest. An agitator.

But John Lawrence considers him a friend and an inspiration.

To Lawrence, 19, of Unity, and his parents, Lucy and John, Cooke is kind, considerate and compassionate.

Cooke reached out last fall to Lawrence, who is striving to walk again after a March 2008 vehicle accident injured his spine and brain, putting him in a coma for nearly 10 months. Cooke invited Lawrence and his parents to a Pens game and a closed practice to meet him and his teammates, and he's kept in touch with a Christmas card and gift.

In light of Cooke's current four-game suspension for a hit on Columbus' Fedor Tyutin, the Lawrence family wanted to speak out on the kind of man Cooke is off the ice.

"Matt's trying to achieve his goal (of playing professional hockey) in life, and my son's trying to achieve his goal, which is walking and getting better," Lawrence's father, John, said. "He sees Matt trying so hard, so he wants to try so hard."

John has been a Penguins fan since he was a little boy, and his family would watch Pens games in his hospital room while he was in his coma.

When Lawrence, who undergoes outpatient therapy through Excela Health, was profiled in a health system newsletter, he talked about his love of the Pens and mentioned Cooke was his favorite player.

"Matt Cooke is a fighter," Lawrence said in the story. "When it gets hard, I imagine him and keep on fighting to get stronger."

A family friend forwarded the article to the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope, a charitable organization started by Cooke and his wife, Michelle, in Vancouver.

Cooke soon got in contact with the family, offering Lawrence and a guest tickets to the opening regular season game at Consol Energy Center.

He set the family up in hotel that night and gave Lawrence, his mom, and his dad the chance to attend a closed practice the next day and take a tour of the new arena.

"I admire your bravery, your strength and your determination to keep on fighting to overcome your challenges," Cooke wrote. "I am honoured that you are able to draw some of that strength from me but the truth is, after reading a story like this, you are my hero."

The family almost didn't make it to the game that night. Just a few miles from their home, a driver pulled out in front of them, causing them to wreck their wheelchair van.

After a trip to the emergency room, a switch of cars and wheelchairs, Lawrence and his dad, John, made it to the game in time for the third period.

They received special passes to stay at the arena after the game.

There they got to meet Cooke, his family, and some other Penguins players. Among them were Mike Comrie and his actress wife, Hilary Duff, who asked if Lawrence knew who she was.

"Yeah, you're Lizzie McGuire," he said, referring to Duff's Disney Channel teen role.

The next morning, Lawrence and his mom and dad headed over to the Consol from their hotel room across the street to watch the practice.

Afterwards, they headed to the locker room to see Cooke and meet the rest of the team.

Cooke pushed Lawrence around in his wheelchair -- giving him a complete tour of parts of the arena most people will never see.

"He said, 'This is my friend John,'" Lawrence said.

He gave Lawrence a jersey and signed it: "To Johnny. Buds Forever!"

The framed jersey hangs in the Lawrence home along with a jersey Evgeni Malkin signed for Lawrence's dad that day.

Brooks Orpik plopped down on a couch and talked to them for 20 minutes about normal things. Tyler Kennedy talked to them about bow hunting, something John Lawrence has done from his wheelchair and something Kennedy said he wanted to try.

Sidney Crosby heard how Lawrence's grandfather had one of Crosby's sticks hanging over his fireplace. He won it in a contest.

A few minutes later, Crosby returned with one of his sticks to give to Lawrence.

"He said, 'Here John. Here's a stick for you to hang up on your wall," Lawrence said.

None of the players asked why Lawrence was in a wheelchair.

"We were just like one of them," the elder John Lawrence said. "It was like we were family."

And they remain like part of the family.

Cooke sent Lawrence a Christmas card and gift -- a Winter Classic hat, Winter Classic T-shirt with Cooke's name and number, and a camouflage Pens shirt.

The Lawrences have kept Cooke updated with pictures and information on how the teen is doing. They hope to get together soon for lunch with Cooke and his family.

Lawrence defends Cooke whenever he can, especially to a fellow a patient in occupational therapy who isn't a Cooke fan.

Lawrence continues to draw strength from his once-in-a-lifetime experience, particularly how Cooke pointed out the words painted in the Pens locker room -- passion, work ethic and accountability.

They are words he lives by.

"I think about it whenever my legs hurt," Lawrence said. "I think about it, and I suck it up and deal with it."



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