Unless he is one of your teammates, Matt Cooke probably never has had his name brought up when discussions about the most-liked players in the NHL take place. These days, Cooke is just hoping his name will be mentioned by a general manager or two.
Arguably one of the biggest villains in the league, Cooke was placed on waivers by the Minnesota Wild on Thursday and will have the final year of his contract bought out by the team once he clears. The 36-year-old signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal on July 5, 2013 with the Wild after his contract of the same length with the Pittsburgh Penguins expired.
By virtue of his actions, Cooke gave several of his former teams ample reason to part ways with him. Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher, however, insists the decision this time was a financial one.
“In order to give our team more salary-cap flexibility for the upcoming season, we needed to make this difficult decision,” Fletcher said in a statement. “We thank Matt for his time with the Wild and wish him the best going forward.”
During his two seasons with the Wild, Cooke registered 14 goals and 24 assists in 111 contests. Injuries limited him to only 29 games in 2014-15 — the lowest total of his 16-year career.
Cooke, a native of Ontario, was selected in the sixth round of the 1997 draft by Vancouver, where he spent the first 8 1/2 seasons of his career. He also skated for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins following his time with the Canucks and has collected 167 goals and 398 points in 1,046 NHL contests.
Not known as a prolific goal scorer, Cooke set his career high in 2011-12, when he recorded 19 tallies with Pittsburgh. He has added 13 goals and 25 assists in 110 postseason games.
No, scoring certainly has not been not Cooke’s forte. Being physical is his specialty, but his propensity for delivering illegal hits is what has dropped him out of favor with many of his peers.
Cooke began earning his bad reputation in 2008-09 while with the Penguins, as he received a pair of two-game suspensions for hits to the heads of Artem Anisimov of the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes forward Scott Walker. His most infamous incident took place the following season, when on March 7, 2010 he delivered another blow to the head of Boston Bruins center Marc Savard.
The league elected not to hand out any sort of punishment to Cooke, whose hit resulted in a concussion and led to the end of Savard’s career. The Ottawa native rejoined the Bruins during the playoffs and appeared in 25 games in 2010-11 before suffering another concussion on a hit by Matt Hunwick and never returned to the ice.
The hit on Savard even was frowned upon by some of Cooke’s teammates.
“If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there’s got to be something,” Pittsburgh’s Bill Guerin told reporters at the time. “I understand he is on my team, but hey, he’s in a tough spot.”
Instead of toning down his act after the Savard incident, Cooke instead revved it up. A hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets in February of 2011 earned him a four-game suspension and, less than two months later, he was banned for the final 10 regular-season contests and the entire first round of the playoffs for elbowing Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head.
That suspension finally appeared to be a wake-up call for Cooke, who began to see the errors of his ways.
“I realize and understand, more so now than ever, that I need to change,” he told reporters.
But the only change seemed to be what body parts of his opponents he would target.
Cooke again walked away unpunished by the NHL after cutting the Achilles tendon of Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson in February of 2013, much to the chagrin of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. After joining Minnesota, he waited until the postseason before earning a seven-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in their first-round matchup.
Despite his questionable conduct on the ice, Cooke was fortunate enough to win the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009. It remains to be seen whether or not a team is willing to overlook his track record and give him another chance at the sport’s top prize.