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Starkey: Cooke suspension was a sick joke

| Thursday, April 21, 2011

Upon further review, the NHL's draconian punishment of Penguins winger Matt Cooke looks preposterous and vindictive.

It has served no higher purpose, that's for sure.

It has not altered the behavior of head-hunting players; it has not changed the pattern of neglect established long ago by NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell. That much is clear in the first round — make that the knockout round — of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I am no defender of Cooke, but what precedent was there for slapping him with a maximum 17-game suspension for his elbow on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh• Valuing playoffs over regular season, it could be argued the suspension is more like 25 games — maybe more — which is beyond ludicrous. Prior to that, Cooke had been suspended 10 games over his 11-year career.

Now, look at Tampa Bay winger Steve Downie, who was suspended 20 games for a vicious hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond three seasons ago. Downie delivered a carbon copy of that hit Monday night ... and was suspended for one game.


Or consider Vancouver's Raffi Torres, who in his first game back from a four-game, head shot-induced suspension, nearly decapitated Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who had not yet touched the puck behind his net. Torres was not suspended.

Double wow.

Don't try to convince me the length of Cooke's suspension was about anything other than the NHL's thin-skinned, old boys' network lashing back at Mario Lemieux. The Penguins co-owner, you might remember, wrote a scathing letter ripping the league in the wake of the debacle on Long Island on Feb. 11, when the Penguins and Islanders combined for 346 penalty minutes — third-most in an NHL game in the past 21 years.

The Penguins, attempting to spearhead a ban on head hits, were hardly in position to argue Cooke's suspension. Don't think Campbell didn't know it. Campbell, per league policy, was not available Wednesday to comment on suspensions.

Flash forward to the playoffs, where the motto has become "Head Shots for Everyone!" and keep in mind that this is the environment into which Sidney Crosby is contemplating a return.

You think a Downie-, Cooke- or Torres-type wouldn't delight in the chance to light up Crosby like a Christmas tree?

What's the risk, a one-game suspension?

I don't know who to blame anymore. Is it the players, too many of whom lack respect for fellow union members• The owners, who refuse to wrest control of their league from a faction of old-school GMs• The league, whose idea of a head-shot deterrent is doling out one-game suspensions — or worse, no suspensions?

Likely, it's all of the above, plus those fans who revel in the head-bashing and tell you to watch tennis if you don't like it. What they ignore is that hockey can be played in physical, intimidating fashion without gutless attempts to injure. Brooks Orpik's crushing but legal hit on Steven Stamkos in Game 1 was a perfect example.

I wonder if we've all lost our minds as I watch the clip of Torres skating 100 mph and decking Seabrook behind the net. Apparently, as Campbell attempted to explain, there is no rule in the NHL that prohibits launching oneself into a defenseless and puck-less player's skull. Campbell actually called it a "legal play" which makes you wonder why Torres was sent to the penalty box for interference.

Maybe Campbell's right. I have no idea anymore — never did, actually — on what represents a suspension-worthy hit. Neither do players, coaches, fans or referees.

And how rich is it that Campbell and Kris King are two of the NHL's top spokesmen for defining clean play• They might as well hire Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen to preach on clean living. In their combined 1,485 NHL games, Campbell and King totaled 81 goals and 3,322 penalty minutes.

Downie and Penguins winger Chris Kunitz — suspended a game for his ridiculous elbow to the head of multi-concussed Lightning forward Simon Gagne — served their one-game suspensions last night. Both should have been benched for the rest of the series, at least.

Kunitz's elbow was no different from Cooke's on McDonagh. True, Kunitz is not a repeat offender, but that stuff gets over-emphasized. What if your first offense is swinging your stick like a baseball bat and beheading somebody?

Might be worth a game or two in Campbell's world.

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