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Starkey: Cooke's conundrum

| Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

Matt Cooke used to play every second of every shift on the edge, straddling the line between ferocity and insanity.


"Now I stay away from the line," he says. "Wherever the line is, I kind of stay 100 meters away."

A surprising number quantifies Cooke's radical new approach. Penguins general manager Ray Shero wasn't even aware of it until he grabbed a stat sheet between periods of the game Tuesday against Carolina.

Shero wanted to check Cooke's penalty-minute total, which last year soared to a career-high 129 in only 67 games.

"Fourteen?" Shero said. "Holy (cow)."

Yeah, holy cow. Say what you want about Cooke — nobody could defend his transgressions — but his transformation has been positively remarkable.

It's not that Cooke merits, or desires, a glowing testimonial. I'm not even sure he's a better player. That is to be determined. He has struggled to find his identity, as one might expect of a wild dog who suddenly lost his fangs.

But what I see is a man who admits he hurt a lot of people, sought help and decided to do things differently. A man who is doing things differently.

And that is to be commended.

His conundrum moving forward: How to be Matt Cooke without being Matt Cooke.

For a 25-game stretch in November and December, Cooke admits he was "scared" to hit people. Only lately has he begun to find a new edge, a way to be physical and aggravate opponents without getting too close to "the line."

Shero's take: "He seems to have found that balance where he can be effective and not have flashbacks."

When was the last time you saw a professional athlete overhaul his game this late in his career• Cooke turned 33 in September.

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was asked recently if he could change his tackling style. He'd just been concussed from delivering another missile-style hit.

"I don't think any football player is going to change the way they're playing," Polamalu said. "I think it's too late in our lives to really do that."

That should hold true in any sport. Cooke appears to be an exception.

You can see it in his hitting style, which was revamped through hours of tape study with coach Dan Bylsma, and in his demeanor. He seems more at peace. He has spoken of talking to people "outside of hockey" as well as within the game in order to effect inner change.

Also, as chronicled by the Trib's Rob Rossi, Cooke's wife, Michelle, survived a serious health scare that weighed on Cooke's mind much of last season.

Add it up, and we are witnessing the complete reprogramming of a hockey player, one who probably cost his team a playoff series when he was suspended for elbowing Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh late last season.

Sitting as his locker this week, Cooke spoke of how he used to take on a persona that jibed with his reputation as the NHL's dirtiest player.

"I had to remove myself, really, from the team before games," Cooke said. "If I'd kept going the way I was going, I wouldn't be in this room. I had to change."

Cooke remains a master penalty killer who ranks second among Penguins forwards in blocked shots and fifth on the team in hits. After a two-goal opener, he has settled into his usual pace of around 12 to 15 goals, though he has none in his past 15 games.

The best way to appraise Cooke's play from night to night?

Shero says that hasn't changed: "If people aren't calling Matt Cooke bad names, he probably didn't have a good game."

They're calling him bad names lately.

Cooke had a team-best eight hits Jan. 7 against New Jersey. He had the Senators clamoring for his scalp last week. He drilled Carolina defenseman Brett Sutter into the end boards early Tuesday, then displayed his newfound restraint when defenseman Tim Gleason elbowed him in the head.

"In the past I probably would have tried to hit him right way," Cooke said. "But if there's a penalty, I want to be on the ice helping my team."

Cooke and Gleason exchanged words, which led to Deryk Engelland and Gleason dropping gloves.

No matter how long he goes without snapping, Cooke is aware that his doubters, understandably, will not be sold.

"I think they're all there, and if something were to happen, they wouldn't be very far away," he said with a laugh. "But I can't worry about that because my focus is on making sure that doesn't happen."

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