Brad’s Barbs: NHL Must Burn Cooke

The NHL has to make a statement today with regard to Penguins forward Matt Cooke. The league must sit Cooke for at least the next 10 games to demonstrate that it is truly serious when it comes to the issue of head shots and player safety.

The incident took place 4:36 into the third period of Sunday’s contest between the Penguins and the Rangers with the game tied 1-1. Cooke skated across ice and delivered what can only be viewed as a deliberate and unnecessary blindsided elbow to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke received a 5:00 elbowing major and a game misconduct for the play.

You can view the incident here:

“I didn’t see him coming at all,” McDonagh said. “I had no idea.” Rangers Coach John Tortorella called the play “brutal.”

Many players around the league consider Cooke one of the game’s dirtiest players. He is a repeat offender according to league policy, having been suspended four times in his career including twice for head shots and once for hitting from behind. The most recent incident took place just over a month ago when the Pens forward was ordered to sit out four games.

After the game, Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma all but acknowledged that Cooke deserves to be suspended for the hit.

“I don’t think you can talk about eliminating head shots from the game as we have as an organization and not expect that to be examined,” he said. “There was contact right to the head on that play. The league will look at that and treat it as such…It was an undisciplined play.”

Give Bylsma credit for speaking the truth and not just giving a knee-jerk reaction and defending his player. Of course, the Penguins are dealing with the long term loss of their captain and best player, Sidney Crosby, who has missed more than two months due to a concussion.

Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux has been outspoken about cheap shots and after a recent brawl between his club and the New York Islanders, Lemieux said, “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kind of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.”

Some called Lemieux a hypocrite for making a statement like that and employing a player like Cooke. Now is his chance to show he means what he says when his player is clearly responsible for a dirty play.

It is also time for the league to show they mean business with regard to protecting players from blind side head shots and reducing concussions.Last week at the GM meetings, the powers that be refused to advocate an automatic penalty for blows to the head the same way high sticking is an automatic penalty regardless of intent. They say going that far isn’t necessary. Now is their chance to prove that they mean what they say.

Even within the guidelines the league has laid out, everything points to a lengthy suspension for Cooke. Here’s why:

1) Unlike Zdeno Chara’s hit last week on Max Pacioretty, there was little doubt on this play about this being a “hockey play.” It wasn’t. There is little doubt about intent or causation. Cooke came across the ice and clearly extended his elbow to make contact with McDonagh’s head. Even though the puck was in the area, the hit to the head was unnecessary, dirty and uncalled for.

2) Cooke is a repeat offender unlike Chara and his last offense was very recent. When Isels forward Trevor Gillies delivered a hit similar to one that got him suspended just after returning from a suspension, the league gave him 10 games for the second incident. Cooke has a longer past history of suspensions than Gillies does and delivered a text book example of what the league spent most of last week saying it is trying to abolish.

3) To most fans and observers, the NHL has not been consistent when it comes to suspensions. Colin Campbell needs to lay down a tough standard on incidents like this going forward or all the discussions at the GM meetings a week ago ring hollow. More and more evidence is accumulating about the long term affects of concussions and head shots. The effects of these repeated blows hurt players years after they retired and may lead to depression, dementia and other serious conditions. If the league is as serious about player safety as it claims to be, Cooke must receive a lot more than a slap on the wrist.

The league needs to show it is serious about head shots and does not play favorites. Cooke needs to sit for at least 10 games.

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