NHL Makes Statement With Matt Cooke Suspension, But League and Penguins Must Do More to Control Cheap-Shot Artist

NHL Makes Statement With Matt Cooke Suspension, But League and Penguins Must Do More to Control Cheap-Shot Artist Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That’s the traditional idiom.

Then there’s the NHL version, which goes more like, fool me 11 or 12 times and Colin Campbell might actually be shamed into doing something about it.

On Monday, the league finally tried to do something to end Matt Cooke‘s unchecked rash of dirty checks, suspending the Pittsburgh cheap-shot artist for the final 10 games of the regular season and first round of the playoffs for his elbow to Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on Sunday.

It probably doesn’t go far enough — forcing him to miss the entire postseason would have been better — and it comes about a dozen concussions and knee injuries too late, but at least the NHL finally made a ruling with some force behind it.

For the next month or so, NHL rinks will be a little safer. Whether it remains that way after Cooke is allowed to return remains to be seen. He’s shown no ability to learn from his past punishments, a fact the Bruins were eager to point out Monday morning even before the league announced its decision.

“You have to trust your players that they’ve learned and that they don’t let it happen again,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said, “although there’s certain guys in the league that don’t seem to be learning.”

That was an obvious reference to Cooke. Bruins forward Brad Marchand was more direct. “It just seems like he doesn’t want to learn and he doesn’t have respect for his opponents,” Marchand said.

Cooke hasn’t had a lot of motivation to learn from his past misdeeds. Despite all his many questionable hits targeting opponents’ heads, knees and various other vulnerable body parts, Cooke had been suspended just four times before in his career for a total of just 10 games.

He got a two-game slap on the wrist for spearing Matt Johnson back in 2004, then two games for a head shot on Scott Walker in January 2009. A similar head shot on Artem Anisimov in November 2009 drew just two games again despite being a repeat offense. Cooke was then given his longest ban to date this February with a four-game suspension for checking Fedor Tyutin from behind.

And that is just the misdeeds the NHL saw fit to actually punish. He’s never been suspended for any of the countless knee-on-knee checks he’s delivered and the brutal blindside hit he put on Marc Savard last March went undisciplined, though it did help lead to this year’s new rule banning lateral and blindside head shots.

Instead of paying for his past transgressions, Cooke was earning bigger paydays. Just a few months after putting Savard’s career in jeopardy, the Penguins rewarded Cooke with a new three-year, $5.4-million deal this summer that raised his yearly salary from $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

The only positive to come from that is it makes this suspension sting a little more, as he’ll forfeit $219,512 in salary for the 10 games he’ll miss.

And for the first time, the Penguins sound like they are no longer willing to enable Cooke. Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero released a statement Monday supporting the suspension as “warranted” and noting in a statement “that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game.

“Head shots have no place in hockey,” Shero’s statement continued. “We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”

That’s a far cry from Shero’s support of Cooke earlier this month in a Sports Illustrated profile, when Shero praised the controversial winger even while acknowledging that Cooke is dirty.

“Is he a dirty player? Yeah, he’s a dirty player,” Shero said. “Ulf Samuelsson was a dirty player. But there’s value in that.”

Apparently, there’s only value when it’s a Penguin that’s delivering the dirty hits. When Pittsburgh is on the receiving end, owner Mario Lemieux threatens to quit the league. Lemieux was roundly, and rightfully, criticized for his hypocritical stance of condemning the Islanders for a fight-filled game against Pittsburgh while continuing to cut checks for the dirtiest player in the game.

And while the Penguins as an organization finally appear to recognize Cooke’s actions on the ice are unacceptable, Lemieux was once again silent on Monday. After inserting himself into the debate over player safety with his statement after the Islanders game and letter to Gary Bettman proposing a system of fining teams when players are suspended, Lemieux needed to make a personal statement denouncing Cooke’s latest vicious assault and supporting the league’s sanctions.

Better yet, he could make a real statement and waive or release Cooke. Lemieux’s willingness to continue to employ Cooke will forever taint his efforts to make the game safer, if indeed that was ever his sincere objective.

Cooke has finally received some semblance of a just punishment. The NHL saw to that, as belated as it may have been with the transgressions already on Cooke’s resume. But now it’s up to the Penguins to ensure that Cooke doesn’t strike again. We certainly know that Cooke isn’t willing, or able, to control himself on his own.

Should the league, and the Penguins, have done more to punish Matt Cooke? Share your thoughts below.

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