The NHL is locked out, but Matt Cooke is focused on more important things these days. Thirteen of his teammates shuffle past him to the locker room after another informal workout. Hockey takes precedence for them. There was a time when the 34-year-old father of three thought the same, but his wife dying 600 miles away in a Pittsburgh hospital sprouted change –– supernatural change.
To fully grasp Cooke’s remarkable turnaround you must first understand his history. The scrappy forward stumbled into the league thanks to his reputation as a gritty, hard-nosed nuisance. His role earned him a spot on Canada’s World Championships team and 583 games of NHL experience with the Vancouver Canucks. During Cooke’s nine seasons with the Canadian organization, he regularly ranked among the team’s most penalized players.
“Not everybody can go out and be a 40 goal scorer. Most of us were that guy in juniors,” Cooke stated. “You have to find your niche and work to stay in this league.”
That niche, for Cooke, was as a daunting physical presence –– a trait he became infamous for when he knocked out the Boston Bruins Marc Savard on March 7, 2010. In 33 months since the hit, Savard has played just 32 games. Cooke’s punishment? A label as the league’s dirtiest player.
“At the time, I truly felt that was what making hits at certain points of the game were. That is why I was in the NHL. Those were hits that I had to make.”
The grinder’s next controversial hit came against Fedor Tyutin 81 games later, but by then, the devastation in Cooke’s personal life far surpassed that of his lawless on-ice play.
For most Penguins, the opening days of 2011 were focused on forgetting the drubbing they received in the first ever Winter Classic nightcap. Cooke could only imagine such a routine start to the new year. Instead of mourning a loss to the Washington Capitals, he was nearly mourning the loss of his wife.
Just hours before he jumped on the team plane for Montreal, the winger rushed his ailing wife, Michelle, to a Pittsburgh hospital. The next update he received was short and somber: you need to come home.
A chaplain was in the hospital room when the Penguin arrived. Michelle, a woman defined by her Christian faith, was in need of a miracle. Cooke hadn’t called on God since the passing of his grandfather almost two decades earlier. He hadn’t needed to. But now, if only as a last resort, the man hockey tabbed as a savage sent up a desperate prayer.
“It’s hard, because you always resort to that in time of need,” Cooke emotionally explained. “I was [relying on God] and not knowing what would happen or even if it would be answered because of not having a relationship [with God] before that.”
Normal was a distant memory for the family over the next ten weeks. Cooke tread through the worst statistical season of his Penguins tenure, eventually landing a four game ban for boarding Tyutin.
“I don’t know if I was sleeping three hours a day. I had to be dad for my three kids, take care of my wife and play hockey. I wasn’t giving the concentration or time necessary to be the best professional athlete.”
Michelle fared slightly better. After four surgeries to remove an inch mass lodged in her urethra, she was healthy enough to attend a Penguins game. What followed was rock bottom.
Cooke’s season ended that night –– the consequence of a deemed intentional elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. With one hit, he disappointed his wife, who needed relief from the most intense battle of her life; he disappointed his team, who lost their top penalty killer and a playoff series because of it; he disappointed his owner, who had recently berated the NHL for not cracking down on vicious blows to the head.
Worse still was the media scrutiny.
“All those things said, they affect my life because my kids have to hear them. That is harder. I’m a grown up, I can deal with it. The media can’t hurt me. I’m old enough and smart enough to think through what is being said and why it is,” Cooke, voice wavering, reminisced. “Unfortunately, when you have kids involved, they think so forward that it is hard for them to see through stuff like that. They take it to heart. That is the hurtful part.”
An immediately apologetic Cooke was just as quickly scoffed by analysts around the hockey world. Never before had the repeat offender publically taken responsibility for his actions. It didn’t matter. An open invitation to lambaste a proven goon was too good to pass up for many. The truth was an afterthought.
“[My] realization skating off the ice was that [my style] needed to change drastically, and the only one that could do that was me,” Cooke recalls. “I was trying to make changes, but I didn’t buy into it. I still felt like I needed to play and act a certain way.” He continues, “That is when I figured I needed help.”
Countless hours of film study ensued. The ultimate rehabilitation, however, was first rooted in a simple prayer months earlier. With an extended off-season in front of him, Cooke’s trips to church frequented. It wasn’t long before the unforgivable head-hunter became a born again Christian. He attributes most credit for his turnaround to that decision.
“It changed my approach. Just like anything else in the world, you believe that if you do the work and you are prepared, you can leave it up to Him and trust that He will do what needs to be done.”
A year later and many of Cooke’s detractors still sneer at his fresh billing as a gentleman.
The forward finished last season with a career high in goals and without a major penalty or misconduct. In fact, he ranked 220th in the NHL in penalty minutes. One season is a coincidence; two is a pattern. Cooke knows he has a long road ahead. He also knows he has help.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason. I was meant to prove that change is possible. The biggest things I gained out of my relationship [with God] is patience with everything and the highs and lows. Being a professional athlete, there are a lot of highs and lows. I rode those to the fullest. But now it’s a steady battle; a constant climb. It’s manageable. It doesn’t take a toll on me or my family and it’s not mentally draining. I have faith that everything will take care of itself.”