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Penguins' reaction may be Matt Cooke's strongest punishment

By Stu Hackel

So many people are debating how long Matt Cooke should be suspended today for his gratuitous elbow (above) to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh that you wonder if the NHL is passing up a great revenue opportunity. Why not license some wagering interest in Las Vegas to take over/under bets on the number of games for each supplementary discipline case that goes in front of Hockey Operations? Part of the league's cut of the handle could go to the bottom line, part into the Players Emergency Fund along with the perpetrator's lost salary, and that way, fans and the media can be a valuable part of the disciplinary process.

Wisecracks aside, the sad fact is that regardless of how long Cooke is banned -- and it will likely be for a while -- NHL players have not yet gotten the message that this sort of on-ice behavior is unacceptable. Maybe they will next season, if and when the suspensions get longer. But not today.

UPDATE: Cooke was suspended for the remainder of the regular season, 10 games, and the first round of the playoffs.

And, yet, maybe more is needed besides increased fines, suspensions and loss of pay.

Let's back up a bit. Last Tuesday, just hours after the league's GMs announced they'd propose expanded rules and tougher sanctions on hits to the head beginning next season, we saw three new episodes of Headshot Theater on the same night, which may be some sort of dubious record. There was a classic Rule 48 blindside hit by Boston's Brad Marchand on Columbus's R.J. Umberger...

...which was certainly not "a good non-call," as the Boston announcers described it.  Marchand was suspended for two games. Then there was the drive-by elbow that the Sharks' Dany Heatley threw at the Stars' Steve Ott...

...for which Heatley also got a two-game vacation, no expenses paid. And in the same game, there was this hit by the Sharks' Douglas Murray on Dallas's Loui Eriksson...

...which, while currently not illegal, is one of the types of excessive hits that the GMs wisely proposed will be a penalty next year. Then, two nights later, the Predators' Patrik Hornqvist threw an elbow at Boston's Tyler Seguin (seen in the second half of the video below)...

...for which Hornqvist was fined $2,500.

Two games, two games, no punishment and a fine -- and nothing changes. If one needs any further proof that the current levels of supplementary discipline are inadequate and Cooke felt he could just continue the trend -- even though he is a multiple repeat offender -- there it is.

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Let's not blame the players alone for this, however. The teams and the league share in the responsibility. They set and enforced the ridiculously weak responses to these sorts of dangerous plays along with the NHLPA. We know players need time to make adjustments, and without next season's more suitable suspensions (whatever they'll be) as a deterrent, the hits will likely just keep on coming.

Will they really be tougher next season? While addressing the media after the proposals for longer suspensions, NHL discipline chief Colin Campbell outlined the process that Hockey Operations will undertake to figure out what is appropriate....

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...and you have to wonder if the GM's and NHLPA will back off when faced with turning a two-game ban with loss of pay into a five game ban. And that’s a critical point, because, as Campbell says in the video above, “We heard they want supplemental discipline increased. That’s fine until it’s your player and the interpretation of what’s wrong and what’s right. We can talk in generalities and we can say the game’s too dangerous and when it happens to your player, ‘Ah, it’s just a hit. These things happen.’”

Pittsburgh's GM Ray Shero, also is in that clip, clearly wants the strongest possible sanctions. He's wanted them for a while, not just since Sidney Crosby was concussed in January. Now, Cooke is Shero's player and not a worthless one, as we've noted before. He's got more to his game than the garden variety bad boys of the NHL. That is one reason Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was perturbed after Sunday's game. Cooke cost the Pens two points, not just because he took the major penalty, but because he's an excellent penalty killer.

"We took a five-minute major in a situation where its a tie game," Bylsma said. "Anytime you're taking a penalty like that, you're putting your team in a tough spot. It's an undisciplined play....That put us in a situation where it changed the game."

And Bylsma also spoke about the larger implications of what Cooke did, saying, "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, as what looks to be contact right to the head on the play. So the league will look at that and treat it as such."

That's a significant sentiment. That's not what most teams do when one of their players crosses the line. Most teams make some noise defending their player, trying to get him off or hoping to minimize the severity of the discipline imposed. Not here. And while the public statements by Cooke's teammates (video) sounded like Sgt. Schultz on the old TV show Hogan's Heroes, according to Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "More than a few guys, however, privately expressed outrage over what Cooke did."

It would be great to hear a few of them make those sentiments public, as former Penguin Bill Guerin did last season when Cooke blindsided Marc Savard, and as Boston's Andrew Ference did earlier this year when his teammate Dan Paille put a head shot on the Stars' Raymond Sawada. But that's a rarity in the NHL, where being a good teammate also means supporting the guy no matter how wrong he is.

Yet, if Cooke's teammates tell him he let them down, if his coach and GM won't back him up, and if his owner, Mario Lemieux -- who has to be infuriated and embarrassed by Cooke's actions after his February statement about violence in the game and his proposal to fine teams and coaches of repeat offenders -- makes it clear that the Penguins organization won't tolerate that sort of on-ice behavior, it's going to be as much or even more of a deterrent than any suspension from the NHL.

And that probably is what happened, judging by the observations of NBC's and Sports Illustrated's Pierre McGuire in the Penguins' dressing room after the game. "This is not a small little thing for this organization," he said Monday morning on Ottawa radio Team 1200  (audio). "The organization has let him know that is unacceptable behavior and it will not be stood up for."

McGuire added the team told Cooke, "You're on your own."

And how did Cooke take it?

"He looked crushed. He looked absolutely crushed," McGuire said. "He deserves to be crushed."

UPDATE: Shero made the following statement after Cooke's suspension was announced: “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, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”

So Cooke's on notice now from his employer. Maybe if more teams treated their players that way. the head shot problem would diminish. But we're not holding our breath on that.