In most NHL cities — and especially in Boston — it would take an extraordinary tale of pain and suffering for anyone to feel even the slightest shred of sympathy for Matt Cooke. He's made a career out of misbehaving on the ice, resulting in numerous suspensions and reaching an all-time low point with his life-altering hit on Bruins center Marc Savard.
This week, though, there is sympathy for Cooke.
The 32-year-old and his wife, Michelle, were the focus of a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story written by Rob Rossi this week that detailed Michelle's health battles. The story explains how Michelle nearly died and how Matt struggled to balance life and work last season.
For that, most folks with souls feel bad for the Cooke family, yet the story goes on to try to paint Cooke as some sort of changed man. That's where the sympathy must stop.
Cooke vows to never make an illegal hit again. He says he reviewed hours upon hours of film and now, more than 800 games into his NHL career, he learned how to finally "deliver a legal check." He said he never wants to repeat the Savard hit or any of his dozens of dirty hits he's delivered in his career.
He said a lot, but what he never said was that he feels any regret or any remorse for what he's done.
In a story about Cooke's wife, he was able to talk almost exclusively about himself — how he was affected, how he will change, how he had to adjust. It's no surprise, then, that when he talks of the illegal hits he's delivered throughout his career, he speaks only of how he will change his ways.
And why is he changing those ways? Because he knows that if he doesn't, he'll be unemployed and he won't be the beneficiary of a $2 million salary anymore. He's put his organization, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in an awful spot, and with a new regime of punishment in the league office, he knows he won't be getting any more free passes. He's out of chances, and if he blows it again, he knows that might be it for his career.
In fact, he said as much.
"He had not played an NHL game in five months and acknowledged the next could be his last — even if he unintentionally hits an opponent in the head," Rossi wrote. "He said he won't, that he owes that much to the most important people in his world: Michelle and children Gabby, Reece and Jackson."
With Savard still dealing with the lingering effects of the devastating concussion he suffered in March 2010, and with the star's career looking more and more to be finished, such a statement from Cooke is disgusting.
What about Savard's family? Does he not "owe it" to his three children to continue working in the NHL? He does, but he doesn't have a choice. Cooke made that for him.
"I'm sure it all happens for a reason," Cooke told Rossi. "It all affects you in one way or another. I can't pinpoint and say when [Michelle] was in the hospital and immediately after hitting [Ryan McDonagh] that there was this moment, but … I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change."
The rest of Cooke's career can be about whatever he'd like it to be, but there's no changing what he's already done. If you've somehow never seen this video, watch it. Ignore Don Cherry's rant and just focus on the video in front of you. Dirty hit after dirty hit after dirty hit. The jerseys change, but the hits remain the same.
You're gullible enough to believe that after all that, a light suddenly went on in this guy's head? That, after a handful of suspensions and years of criticism as one of the dirtiest players in all of sports, he finally "gets it"? You think this somehow has more to do with enlightenment than it does self-preservation? Well, give me a call sometime — I've got a bridge to sell you.
Look, it comes down to this: I, along with everyone else in the world, wish the very best for the Cooke family. No person deserves to go through such pain, no husband deserves to see his wife that way and certainly no children should have to see a parent in a hospital bed at such a young age. It's horrible, and hopefully for the sake of the entire Cooke family, the worst is over.
The story written this week has made us all aware of that. But Matt Cooke the hockey player? I'm sorry, but that story was written long ago. Marc Savard — and countless others — knows that story all too well.
That story can't change.