When Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke delivered an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh Sunday at CONSOL Energy Center, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Cooke’s reckless play earned him five minutes and a game misconduct, putting his team down a man in what was then a 1-1 game. Between that and a subsequent double-minor for high sticking to teammate Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh quickly found itself on the wrong end of a 3-2 score and, eventually, a 5-2 loss.
But Cooke’s foul was even more ill-timed off the ice.
It came just days after the close of this year’s NHL general managers meetings, where player safety and a new protocol for dealing with concussions – like the one that has sidelined Penguins captain Sidney Crosby since early January – were the hot topics.
During those meetings, it came out that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux had sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlining a proposal to fine teams whose players are suspended, “with the amount of the fine based on the length of the suspension. This should serve as a disincentive for teams as well as players to employ these kinds of tactics.”
That wasn’t the first time this season that Lemieux felt compelled to speak out against the NHL’s discipline policies. In mid-February, after a brawl-filled game against the New York Islanders resulted in 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections and at least one serious injury in a concussion to Pittsburgh’s Eric Tangradi, Lemieux issued a statement calling the game “a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that,” and expressing his disappointment with the supplemental discipline handed down by the league.
“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.”
When the Penguins faced the Islanders, incidentally, Cooke was already in the midst of serving a four-game suspension for charging Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin into the boards. That came one game after the Washington Capitals accused Cooke of a knee-on-knee hit on star forward Alex Ovechkin, and a year after Cooke knocked out Boston Bruins center Marc Savard with a blindside hit that prompted rule changes to outlaw them.
Some hockey commentators accused Lemieux, and the Penguins organization, of being hypocritical for deriding violence in the sport while simultaneously employing one of the league’s dirtiest players. And Sunday’s incident didn’t make them look any better.
As such, the Penguins didn’t try to defend Cooke after the game. Head coach Dan Bylsma called the incident “an undisciplined play … that put us in a situation where it changed the game,” and indicated that he expected to be without Cooke for a while.
“I don’t think you can talk about eliminating headshots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect that to be examined, what looks to be contact right to the head on the play,” Bylsma said. “The league will look at that and treat it as such.”
And Monday afternoon, when the league did look at it and decided to suspend the repeat offender for 10 games – the rest of the regular season – plus the first round of the playoffs, his organization could only voice their support of the NHL “in sending this very strong message” said Penguins general manager Ray Shero.
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey. 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.”
Whether Cooke will face any additional discipline from the team is not yet known. He forfeits nearly $220,000 in salary, while the Penguins lose a player with a mix of grit and skill that has made him highly valuable to their team, particularly their league-best penalty kill – when he can keep his head on straight.
“When Matt Cooke plays within the rules, he’s been very successful for us, helped us be successful and was a big part of us going on a Stanley Cup run, so that’s the rub,” Bylsma said. “It’s got to be within the rules, and we’re dealing with that now.”