By Stu Hackel
Matt Cooke and his suspension were the hot topics of conversation in the dressing room of our usual Tuesday night skate (along with why the Red Wings aren't playing well and the Rangers are, the size of NHL goalies today and how well large netminders Pekka Rinne and Carey Price have done). But unlike in NHL dressing rooms, no one was putting microphones in our faces to record our thoughts.
TSN got its mics in the faces of some Canucks and Canadiens yesterday (video) and these players were quite supportive of the NHL's decision to suspend Cooke for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Their opinions were not surprising, considering the way various NHLers had reacted on Monday before the news of the suspension came down (video).
Cooke remains a big item in the hockey world as discussions swirl about his suspension for elbowing the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh on Sunday. Cooke himself has said that he knows he has to change his game, and on Tuesday night the NHL on TSN panel of Bob McKenzie and ex-NHLers Mike Peca and Mike Johnson had a thoughtful discussion about whether he actually can change the way he plays (video).
What needs to be said further, however, is that Cooke's situation is a perfect example of how lax NHL discipline did not deter him. He had two previous suspensions in one year for hits to the head (January and November 2009) and each was for two games. He also escaped punishment for his well-known hit that targeted Marc Savard's head a year ago. His most recent suspension, for boarding Columbus's Fedor Tyutin from behind last month, was for four games. He also got a two-game ban in 2004 for spearing. Had the severity of his next two suspensions escalated after the 2004 incident instead of staying at two games, perhaps Cooke might have gotten the message earlier.
Cooke's latest suspension is being hailed far and wide as a case in which the NHL got it right -- which it did -- but it should not have come to this. And for those who believe that his ban signals a new tougher era of supplementary discipline, there may be some disappointment ahead, at least for the remainder of this season.
NHL general managers last week agreed to set tougher guidelines for the Hockey Operations Department, but they won't go into effect until next season -- and only if they are agreed upon by the NHLPA members who sit jointly with league representatives on the Competition Committee, and are approved by the Board of Governors.
So why did Cooke finally get the lengthy suspension most believe he deserved for quite a while?
One provocative theory comes from the Versus website. Steve Lepore has been writing the very good blog Puck The Media, focusing mainly on NHL TV matters. He deservedly just landed a paying gig at Versus (and there are lots of equally deserving available writers out there -- including Chris Botta, who wrote the indispensable Islanderspointblank for a few years -- if Versus or anyone else is looking to beef up their content).
In his first post, Lepore suggests "there's something fishy" about Cooke being slammed so hard by the league. He notes that the other suspensions given last week to Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand were merely garden variety two-gamers
"I know Cooke is a repeat offender," Lepore writes, "but you have wonder if he would have been given a 10-game/first round suspension had the hit not taken place during the NHL’s national showcase Game of the Week on NBC, in a game that had been heavily hyped between two big-market teams. Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand may be new to suspensions, but man, it is hard to see Cooke’s hit as that much worse as those two hits last week, yet both Heatley and Marchand were only given two-game suspensions."
Others have made similar points in the past, that certain incidents attract more focus because they occur in high-profile, highly visible games. Had someone delivered a Cooke-style drive-by elbow in a game between Columbus and Phoenix, the theory goes, nothing much by way of supplemental discipline would have come down. It's hard to ever know if those sort of suspicions are true, and the league would most likely deny that teams, venue and game circumstances have any impact on its decisions. What is known with certainty about this particular incident reveals why Cooke will be sitting for so long.
First, yes, Cooke is a repeat offender. Many times over. And the league has often stated that discipline will be assessed more harshly on repeat offenders than first-timers.
Second, Cooke's team did not back him up. The Penguins, in what may be the most important aspect of this entire incident, refused to play the role of enabler to one of their own's unacceptable behavior. This organization put the good of the game ahead of what is good for itself, something every team should do (and few likely will). Setting a new, very commendable standard in response to a serious problem facing the game, Pittsburgh didn't contest Colin Campbell's ruling or try to present any evidence to soften the blow. As a result, the NHL could more easily whack Cooke with the maximum penalty -- which he deserved -- without the usual pressure from the perpetrator's club that accompanies a hearing.
Third, Cooke made the poor judgment of committing his foul in the wake of the GMs meetings where eliminating headshots had been made a priority. Much the same way that the Islanders' Trevor Gillies came right off a suspension for a headshot and delivered another one only a few shifts after returning to action, Cooke's timing could not have been worse. It certainly didn't help him that the game was on national TV, but it was probably a bigger factor that the NHL had made a major image push to show that it was trying to limit hits to the head only to have a serial headshot artist deliver yet another gratuitous blow a few days later. The combination of Cooke's repeat offender status, his team's refusal to defend him, and his symbolic slap in the NHL's face had more to do with the severity of the league's response than the TV platform.
The issue that troubles Lepore -- and most fans -- in all this is the lack of consistency the NHL shows in its supplementary disciple. Fans can’t be 100 percent satisfied with Cooke's suspension, he writes, "because it still doesn’t look like the NHL has an across-the-board standard for suspensions to headshots. Would Dany Heatley, a star in this league, or even the considerably less headline-worthy Marchand, have to do what they did (or something of similar weight) five times to receive the suspension that Cooke got? Just when is enough determined to be enough? Hopefully, this is the beginning of an era where that won’t need to be the case."
Lepore proposes a three-strike policy on illegal hits to the head: Once is worth a five-game suspension. Twice, 15 games. Three times, a season-long ban with the NHL determining during the offseason whether the player can return. "A standard such as this may be harsh, but it would be consistent. I think that’s what hockey fans are looking for at this difficult crossroads the game is in with violent hits to the head."
For better or worse, the NHL has never claimed that it has an across-the-board standard for suspensions on headshots or anything else. In fact, it doesn't want one. League officials have repeatedly said that these are complicated issues and a simple "traffic violation" approach won't work. They want the flexibility to determine punishment on a case-by-case basis, taking each situation's uniqueness into account.
What would be most beneficial, however, is for the NHL, after each hearing, to release a video to the players, clubs and public showing the infraction, describing why it was (or was not) a punishable offense, and explaining the reasoning behind the league's disciplinary decision. Right now, there is too little transparency in the process. The consistency that fans, players, teams and the league as a whole would benefit from most -- especially if the standards are going to change -- can be found in regular explanations of what is and what is not acceptable behavior and why.