ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Cooke has worn No. 24 during his 14-year NHL career with three teams and wanted to continue with the number after signing with the Minnesota Wild last week.
Cooke knew there was special significance to No. 24 in Minnesota, though. The number was worn by Derek Boogaard, the team’s former enforcer who was beloved during his time with the Wild. No one in Minnesota had worn No. 24 since Boogaard died in 2011.
Cooke wanted to be sensitive to the feelings in his new home. He knew Boogaard was adored by the team its fan base. So, instead of just assuming the number, Cooke reached out to Boogaard family for approval.
“I didn’t feel right putting it on without reaching out to the family,” Cooke said. “Via email, (I) reached out to Derek’s mom and dad, and both of them responded with overwhelming support of me putting the number on.”
Cooke, signed to a three-year contract as a free agent Friday, was introduced to the media Wednesday afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center, wearing the No. 24.
Cooke thought about switching and not stepping into the delicate territory. “You don’t want to put yourself in that position,” he said. But after speaking with his wife and getting the approval of the team, he felt he should at least reach out to the Boogaards.
“There was a time when I didn’t want to put it on,” Cooke said. “In communicating with the team and my family, I had to at least try and see. If there was any hesitation or doubt from the family at all, there was no way I would have put the number on. But the response I got was overwhelming and totally appreciated by me.”
The team had given him approval for No. 24. Martin Havlat had actually worn the number after Boogaard went to the New York Rangers in free agency, but Havlat’s last time in a Wild sweater was the end of the 2010-11 season, shortly before Boogaard died.
While with Vancouver, Cooke had played against Boogaard in the Xcel Energy Center and heard the fans cheer for the big, intimidating player, affectionately known as “Boogie.” Even then, Cooke said he didn’t know the immense adoration and outpouring of support in Minnesota for Boogaard.
“I can’t say that I did know exactly the feeling and the support that he had, but I can understand it completely,” Cooke said. “One of the things I expressed to the family, by me putting on this number, is in no means any sort of disrespect to him or his family, or what he’s accomplished and did here in Minnesota. If anything, hopefully, I can support and honor him by putting this number on.”
Cooke, who vows he’s changed his approach after being labeled one of the dirtiest players in the league earlier in his career, is making sure not to overstep any bounds in his new environment. Now in Minnesota, and back in the Western Conference for the first time since 2008, Cooke is also trying to make amends with his new teammates.
Cooke said he has friends on the Wild roster, such as Dany Heatley and Mike Rupp, who he’s played with before. One of the first texts he received from a Minnesota player was from star Zach Parise.
“Before I said anything, I told him, ‘Once I see you in person, I’ll apologize for any past run-ins,'” Cooke said. “Because when he was in New Jersey we had a few. He texted me back and said, ‘Don’t worry man, I’ve had a lot worse.’
“It’s always an awkward time. You’ve always had battles. But I think that’s in the nature of the game and the sport of the game. If there wasn’t that, the game wouldn’t be the exciting and amazing game that it is. I think that’s a credit to guys in this league, that they might dislike playing against you, but once you’re on their side, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
Cooke signed with the Wild because of the moves the team has recently made, like the signing of Parise last summer.
“For me, I’m a guy that needs to win,” Cooke said. “I’m a team-first type of guy. I don’t think I would do so well in a situation that isn’t prime to win, and win often. I feel like this team is. I feel like this team is right on the cusp of doing some great things. Hopefully I can come in and help that.”
As for those who don’t believe he’s changed, including many Minnesota fans who were opposed to the signing when it was announced Friday, Cooke said he knows he can’t change everyone’s feelings. He’s spoken often of how he’s altered his approach since the signing. He isn’t worried about defending himself or his changed ways.
“When I started this process, I didn’t do it for the fans,” Cooke said. “I did it for my family. I did it for my teammates and I did it for me. I knew that I could play the rest of my career without being suspended and there’s still going to be naysayers, and that’s fine. I’m not going to change their opinion and I understand that. I respect the fact that they have opinions and I’m not trying to dodge anything that happened in the past. But I know who I am today and how I play the game and how I approach the game, and that’s something that’s not going to change.”
Cooke is confident he’s changed and focused on doing the right things,
like making amends with his teammates and being sensitive to the
feelings associated with his Wild number.