Can Matt Cooke Really Change?

This morning we mentioned that notorious head shot artist and prototypical “guy you love to hate” Matt Cooke has vowed to change his game. He says that the days of dirty hits are in the past and he’s changed his approach playing hockey. He told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody:

He said will still hit, but only “the right way,” and not because he believes his return to the NHL is under zero-tolerance terms, even though he said nobody with the Penguins or league has used those words.

No more elbows. No more blindside shots. No more of the hits that have garnered him the reputation as the NHL’s dirtiest player, a so-called cheap-shot artist who has been suspended four times for illegal hits in three seasons since joining the Penguins.

But can he really change?

Maybe we’re naive, but we honestly believe that Cooke wants to change. We saw on HBO’s 24/7 how, off the ice, he’s a fun, caring person who wears matching suits with his son and plays pranks in the locker room. His charity, the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope, “provides opportunities and assistance to registered charity organizations within Canada.” The Rossi article goes into detail about Cooke’s family life and his wife’s recent health scare.

Jordan Staal was probably right when he said that Cooke is “not a monster like some people think.”

We believe that Matt Cooke believes he can change. He knows that his suspensions hurt his teammates last season and he’s vowed to be better. But can he actually do it?

Hockey is a game of instinct and reaction as much as it’s a game of skill, strategy and preparation. Players need to make split second decisions all the time. They need to be able to make the right decisions without really thinking about them. What we’ve seen far too many times is that Cooke has historically made the wrong decision. He’s made the dangerous decision or the dirty decision or the “being a reckless jerk” decision. Rather than bump a player off the puck, he’s elbowed someone in the head. Rather than delivering a shoulder-to-shoulder check, he’s tried to take a knee out. Rather than trying to poke at the puck, he’s hit someone from behind.

Those were all split second decisions made by Cooke. We doubt that he stepped onto the ice thinking “I’m going to try to serious injure this guy” but it happened anyway and it happened because he made a bad split second judgment. When faced with the option, Cooke has typically gone the dirty route. A lot.

For Cooke to change it’s going to require a pretty significant shift in the way he thinks. He’ll have to retrain himself to make better decisions and ignore his instinct to cause injury. That’s not saying that he has to take physicality out of his game and that’s not saying that he’ll need to stop being “a pest,” but he will need to stop hurting people.

That will be a challenge for him. How do you continue playing a tough, grinding style while drastically modifying how you interact with other players? Cooke is a valuable talent in the NHL because he’s a pest and he can get under the skin of his opponents. He’s not going to want to take that aspect out of his game, but he is going to want to play a safer style of hockey. He knows that his actions have hurt people and he knows that his team and the league will not put up with him much longer. If he wants to remain in the NHL, he will have to change.

Apparently, he’s trying:

Cooke said he has reviewed 20 hours of hits — his own and those by others such as Rangers forward Ryan Callahan — so he could learn how to deliver a legal check.

Cooke said his new approach to hitting would have changed the way he approached McDonagh. He could have gone after the puck — McDonagh was in the process of dumping the puck from the neutral zone into the offensive zone — with his stick blade. Cooke said if he “had to hit (McDonagh), I’d hit his hands with my body.

“It wasn’t intentional,” he said, “but there is no excuse.”

Cooke, unlike after previous controversial hits, asked Penguins general manager Ray Shero if he could attend a discipline hearing the next day in Toronto. He didn’t try to excuse his behavior before NHL brass, Shero said.

Cooke even sent an apologetic text to McDonagh.

“Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit,” Michelle said. “That was the difference I noticed. This (hit) bothered him.”

Matt Cooke says he wants to “learn how to deliver a clean check.” Is that possible? Can he do it? Hopefully, for his sake and for the sake of everyone he plays against, he can.