Friday, February 15, 2013

Redemption, or Not

(inspired by a Twitter conversation with Hal Mangold (@AtomicOvermind) who has been threatening to write for us for years in much the same way Vermont keeps threatening to secede)

Hockey's an unusual sport in a lot of ways. It's played on a sheet of ice; the players wear razor-sharp blades and collide with one another all the time; it's so exhausting that a one-minute shift is considered long. And it's the only sport that Québécois parents allow their children to play*.

Violence isn't unique to hockey, certainly. Longtime readers** know that I dwell overmuch on the long-term effects of injury in the NFL. Hockey suffers similarly.

But really, only in hockey do you have the guy with the designated role "enforcer," or "thug."  The guy whose job it is to try to injure other players, or to retaliate against those that have injured your players.  The guy whose job it is to pick fights with the guys in the other shirts.

Matt Cooke isn't exactly the Pittsburgh Penguins' enforcer.  But he has a reputation as an instigator, and as a dirty player, based on hits like this one:

Penguins management didn't protest the suspensions that Cooke received from this hit and another, near the end of the 2010-2011 season. Cooke was known for committing these kinds of fouls, but the Pens front office was getting tired of it.  Especially after a couple of deliberate head-shots that ended up damaging superstar Sidney Crosby's brain.  Crosby ended up losing over a year of playing time, and the Penguins joined the chorus calling for greater penalties for headshots.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said, essentially, that he wasn't going to try to protect Matt Cooke anymore; he didn't want Cooke committing these kinds of hits, and that Cooke didn't have much of a future as a Penguin if he didn't shape up.

And then something amazing happened: Cooke shaped up.

In the 2010-2011 season, Cooke played 67 games. He had 129 penalty minutes, roughly one 2-minute minor per game. He scored 30 points***.  That's less than half a point per game.  He only played 67 games, in part because of 14+ games worth of suspension.

In the 2011-2012 season, Cooke played all 82 games.  He had 44 penalty minutes -- that's around one minor penalty every 4 games, and the lowest total of his career.  He also scored 38 points, the second-highest total of his NHL career.  Cooke became a Penguins attacker worth taking seriously.

He spent a lot of time watching film, reviewing his hits, and figuring out ways to play effectively without always going for the biggest his possible.  He also received counseling and therapy in light of his suspension and his wife's life-threatening kidney illness.

The 2013 season has been a weird one, of course, thanks to the lockout. It's hard to extrapolate players' statistics for the season based on just the 14 games the NHL has had so far this season.

Before last night, Cooke's penalty minutes per game remained low (8 minutes in 13 games); his scoring is below his average from last year.  But then last night Cooke went somewhat recklessly into Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, and Cooke's skate blade went 3/4 of the way through Karlsson's achilles tendon.  Karlsson's out for at least the next 3 months. He may have lost his season.

Hockey fans -- particularly including Ottawa fans -- went nuts. Same old Cooke. Last year must have just been an aberration. He's a dirty player, he should be thrown out of the league, he did it on purpose, etc.

The NHL said there was no sign of intent.  Cooke was penalized, but he won't be suspended.

I don't know.  The Matt Cooke we've seen over the last hundred games isn't the same guy we had on our hands before. Which guy committed the hit last night?

Once somebody turns around, how many screwups are they allowed?

* I kid. The Québécois and me go way back. I believe they're also permitted to play badminton.
** Both of them!
*** For those unfamiliar with hockey, players are credited with one point for a goal or an assist.

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