ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild fans remember Matt Cooke well from his times with the Vancouver Canucks and the clashes that used to occur between the two teams, most notably during the 2003 Western Conference semifinal.
Cooke was the villain, one of the pests on Vancouver that infuriated Minnesota and its fans. He knew his job then and performed it well. So well, that Cooke’s Friday signing with the Wild, on a three-year contract, wasn’t received well among Minnesota fan base.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of fans there maybe aren’t fond of me and they remember when I played for Vancouver, but hopefully I can change their opinions rather quickly once I get there,” Cook said during his conference call with Minnesota reporters on Friday.
The Wild fans remember Cooke, even if there are no players left from the 2003 playoff team. In fact, only three Minnesota players remain from the 2007-08 roster that faced Cooke in his final season with the Canucks. But Cooke’s reputation has stuck and is well-known league-wide.
He’s been suspended five times by the league, well-earning his label as a “dirty” player. A hit to the head of Boston Bruins center Mark Savard essentially ended Savard’s career because of concussion symptoms. Cooke wasn’t suspended for the hit, but the incident did lead to a change in the league’s rules against blindside hits. Four times he’s finished a season with over 100 penalty minutes.
Yet, Cooke vows he’s not the same player he was during those early years.
After his last suspension in 2011, in which he elbowed New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Cooke knew he had to change his ways if he wanted to continue his career. The suspension for the hit on McDonagh was the longest of Cooke’s career, causing him to miss the final 10 games of the regular season and all seven of his team’s playoffs games.
“It’s something that I feel that where I’m in a situation where it’s never going to be gone,” Cooke said of his reputation. “But to guarantee myself success in the way that I play night in and night out, it’s something that I had to work on. I spent a lot of time doing video and a lot of time trying to teach myself from the approach out to change and feel like I’ve accomplished that.”
While the fans remember the old Cooke, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo know Cooke too from their days together in Pittsburgh and have seen the evolution in Cooke’s game.
“There’s no question when he came in the league he was an agitating player, a physical player, a player that was in the league because of his physical play, his ability to get players off their games, to agitate,” Fletcher said. “The one thing I’ve noticed the last two years is Matt, and I think we saw this with Cal Clutterbuck too, with the new rules in our game, I think Matt has learned to not take every hit. You see him now passing up on some hits. He angles a lot. He’s always in good position defensively and yet he still has that physical presence. It’s a fine line for him.
Cooke knew he couldn’t just say he would change. With the split-second timing and decision-making on the ice, he knew he had to adapt a different way to play. So, during the suspension for the McDonagh, Cooke started watching video. He examined how he approached hits, how he targeted players. He worked on discovering better angles, better ways to play the puck and opponents.
He still plays a physical game, but says he’s changed his approach.
“I still feel that that’s the way that I need to play to be successful,” Cooke said. “It’s just, for me, it was eliminating the high-risk hits. I always approached it to go out and get the biggest hit possible. With the speed of the game and the way that the game, there isn’t a whole lot of stuff anymore. It just brought in some situations that were a lot more dangerous. By changing my approach from the onset, not going to get the biggest hit always, but reading situations, stick position, that type of thing, I would enable myself to make a decision on the fly as to what the best thing to do.
“There’s still times that you can go out and get a hit and get big hits that are clean, and they’re part of the game. It was the other ones that I wanted to get rid of. I still averaged over 2 hits a game this past season and that’s something I want to keep in my game.”
The reputation still follows Cooke though.
During a play last season, Cooke’s skate sliced the Achilles of Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. Critics said it was a malicious play and he was accused of intentionally trying to injure Karlsson. Cooke wasn’t penalized or suspended for the hit and called the play a “freak, unfortunate accident.” He took a major penalty in a playoff series against Boston in June when he was called for checking from behind on Adam McQuaid and was given a game misconduct.
Cooke’s game has appeared to change though. Two seasons ago, he set a career-high with 19 goals and he had just 44 penalty minutes while playing all 82 games. Last season, again playing every game, he was on pace for 16 goals in an 82-game season and what would have been a career-high tying 42 points. His 97 hits ranked 71st in the league and 36 penalty minutes was tied for 118th.
Fletcher is confident the perception in Minnesota will be changing, just as Cooke says his game has changed.
“Matt is a player that brings a lot to the table,” Fletcher said. “I think when everybody watches him as a player and focuses in on what he is now as a player versus what his reputation is as a player, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you see.”