I am a terrible hockey player.

The biggest issue is that I can’t skate worth a damn. I have no sense of how to shift my weight or control my blades. Stopping is a 50/50 proposition: sometimes I stay on my feet, sometimes I get spun around and fall. It’s part of the reason I ended up as a goaltender, but I’m not a particularly good goalie either.

There’s a simple reason why: I didn’t grow up playing hockey. I only went ice skating a few times each winter with school groups or with friends, all of whom could skate circles around me. I played street hockey and floor hockey frequently, but as soon as the game hit the ice, I was and am terrible.

So now, when I play hockey, I am constantly thinking and directing my body through a series of actions. Thanks to years and years of watching hockey intently, I know to a certain degree what I should be doing, so I attempt to put that knowledge into practice. It doesn’t work because that knowledge is all in my mind and none of it is in my body.

Professional hockey players have years and years of hockey knowledge embedded in their bodies. When Steven Stamkos takes a one-timer, he doesn’t think through the steps of shooting and enact each step one by one; he simply acts from his body, through his stick, into the puck. It’s such a core part of his being that it seems natural to him, like he was born with that ability.

What hockey players do on the ice bears such a strong resemblance to instinct that we lose sight of the immense amount of time and preparation that goes into every action. Each player made a series of choices that led him to be as good as he is at hockey and shaped the type of player he is.

This leads me to Matt Cooke.

Over the last several years, the name “Matt Cooke” has become synonymous with “dirty player.” Daniel Tolensky gathered together a history of Cooke’s cheap shots and dirty hits last year and it’s damning. Cooke is shown repeatedly going for the head with his elbows and shoulders, hitting hard through the numbers, and hanging out his leg to go knee-on-knee. It’s an ugly sight.

Cooke has over 1000 penalty minutes in his career, with a single-season high of 129 PIMs last year in just 67 games. He has been suspended four times in his career, with two of them coming last season. His last suspension was his biggest, as he was suspended 10 regular season games as well as the first round of the playoffs for his elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh.

Matt Cooke has just 20 penalty minutes in 56 games this season.

When people talked about Cooke last season, it was in connection with driving a player’s head into the glass with a hit from behind or blind-siding a player with an elbow to the jaw. Now they talk about whether a player took a dive when Cooke hit him or attempt to stir up controversy with a Zapruder-esque short film. In other words, Cooke has completely changed how he plays the game.

This is highly remarkable. A hockey player with years and years of a certain style of hockey embedded in his body has managed to retrain himself in just one off-season to become a different type of hockey player.

Ellen Etchingham wrote very eloquently on the subject of precision, intent, and discipline on this very blog a few days ago. As she puts it, “Hockey playing is best understood not as a process of thinking and deciding and choosing but rather a process of conditioning and executing” and that “the aim is to take strategies and tactics and turn them into reflexes and instincts, the kind of actions that can be acted with as little conscious thought as possible.”

I think this is completely accurate, though I would say it’s not limited to hockey. All sports (and all life) require this process of turning explicit thoughts into implicit actions. Walking is a habit. There is no explicit conscious thought involved in walking; we simply desire to move from one place to another and do so. The knowledge of how to walk is embedded in our bodies.

The same is true of more complex actions. I may be terrible at hockey, but I’m a solid soccer player: the actions, strategies, and tactics of soccer are embedded in my body. I no longer need to think about how to pass a ball or where to position myself on the field: those actions are implicit habits. For professional players, more and more of that knowledge is embedded in the body, so that actions that would take intense concentration for an amateur such as myself are seemingly natural instincts for them.

This is obviously true for actions in hockey such as stickhandling and shooting, but it is also true of hitting. Take Niklas Kronwall’s recent demolition of Danny Briere, for example. When Kronwall sees the pass going to Briere up the wing, he immediately shifts his weight forward and to the left to set up the hit. There is no hesitation, no conscious, explicit thought required. He doesn’t see that pass and think about what it means: he steps forward and hits. At some point in the past, he may have analysed such situations and put that thought into action, but now those types of hits are simple reactions to the situation. The knowledge of how to throw that kind of hit is embedded in Kronwall’s body.

Ellen uses her discussion of precision and practice as a springboard for discussing intent with regard to dangerous hits, pointing out that players are often excused for the mistakes that lead to illegal hits because of the speed of the game. It’s an interesting observation, but I don’t think it holds true for all illegal hits and all players. Matt Cooke certainly wasn’t excused for his illegal hits, but mainly because they weren’t seen as mistakes.

If anything, Cooke was demonized for the opposite: he was accused of intentionally and deliberately attempting to injure other players, but if hockey is not  about “thinking and deciding and choosing” but is instead about “conditioning and executing” then something else is at work. In the wake of illegal hits, the perpetrator will frequently say something to the effect of “I’m just playing my game” or “it’s the way I’ve always played.” If you look at Cooke’s history in the league, you’ll see a fair amount of consistency.

That type of hockey was embedded in Cooke’s body. Sticking an elbow out to catch someone’s head, hanging a knee on a player when he missed a hit, driving through the numbers into the boards: those were conditioned habits, implicit actions. That isn’t to say he isn’t responsible, because of course he is. He’s responsible for the choices that led to that type of hockey becoming habitual.

But, from what I can tell, he’s managed to break out of those habits. Whether this comes from a specific emotional cue or the dictates of the Penguins’ management and coaching staff, Cooke has changed the way he plays the game.

In order to make this change, he had to address the issue through explicit conscious thought first. He studied hours of game tape with Dan Bylsma to address his hitting style as well as changing how he thinks about himself and other players. But thought isn’t enough. Talk is cheap and Cooke knew he would be judged by his actions. His explicit thoughts on how to change had to be embedded into implicit actions. They had to become habitual.

As he told ESPN, ”If it was something I had to think about every night, then I wouldn’t have the success that I’m having.” In other words, playing cleanly had to become a reflex, an instinct, a habit. Cooke has seemed hesitant at times this season, as his new style of play still requires some conscious thought in the moment. He still has to think his way through situations on the ice.

“I think now I’ve taken it so far that now I think that there’s times when I’m watching tape, oh, I could have hit there, I was fine to hit there,” Cooke admitted. “I’m erring on the cautious side and I don’t beat myself up about it, but I think that there’s times when I could be a bit more physical and it’s still going to be OK.

“I’m sure it is feeling your way. I’m sure it’s a little bit of me thinking that I’m taking a risk still and I don’t want to do that. I’m sure over time that’ll come.”

It will definitely take time. He has a couple decades of habits to overcome.