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NHL Justified in Suspending Cooke, Should Have Gone Further With Heatley

Sophie Pustil |
March 23, 2011 | 11:49 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Matt Cooke is out for the rest of the season and the first round of the playoffs. (Creative Commons/Dan4th)
Matt Cooke is out for the rest of the season and the first round of the playoffs. (Creative Commons/Dan4th)
Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a dirty, dirty player -- the fans know it, his teammates know it and the Penguins’ management knows it. So when the NHL chose to suspend him for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs following his most recent attempt to behead an opponent with his elbow, the decision was met with no opposition.

"That's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero said in a statement released shortly after the decision Monday. "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… the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

This will be the fifth suspension of Cooke's career and the fourth in the last three seasons (four of his suspensions have been for illegal checks to the head). He was most recently suspended four games for a hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 8.

This is of course not counting the now infamous shoulder to the head of Boston’s Marc Savard last March that knocked Savard out cold and sidelined him for the rest of the season (see video below). Although the hit did not warrant a suspension at the time, it was the catalyst for Rule 48: a rule created so that the next time a player blatantly took a run at someone’s head, the league could actually do something about it. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a radio interview following the incident, “I was very unhappy and upset with that hit…I was more upset there was nothing [in the League’s rules] to do to punish it.”

So here we are a year later, the league is still under fire from the media, management and players alike demanding more severe ramifications for blind side hits to the head, and bully for them -- Cooke is ready to step up and give them someone to crucify.

With Cooke's hit on Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers Sunday (see below), the league found itself in the perfect position to send a message to the players and fans alike that dangerous, deliberate hits to the head will no longer be tolerated. Cooke was not only suspended at the most critical time of the year for determining seeding going into the playoffs and sidelined for the first round, he will forfeit $219,512.20 in salary as per the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Beyond the hit to the wallet, what is most significant about the suspension is the fact that when he is not attempting to maim his fellow players, Cooke is actually highly effective on the ice. His absence from the lineup will certainly be felt on a team with an already depleted roster that finds Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on injury reserve -- Crosby out indefinitely and Malkin at least until next season.

Cooke’s hit was selfish and a blow to the team that needs him now more than ever – a sentiment echoed by Penguins’ owner Mario Lemieux, who, according to TSN’s Nick Kypreos, met with Cooke following the hit and warned him to clean up his act or else find his days as a Penguin numbered.

It is the way that this suspension serves to alienate Cooke from his already hurting team that leads me to support the NHL’s ruling in the case of a repeat offender with elbows of steel. I’m glad to know that when a situation arises in which the player is so blatantly disregarding both the rules and the safety of others, the league won’t hesitate to put its foot down.

And then there’s Dany Heatley. The San Jose Sharks’ forward elbowed Steve Ott of the Dallas Stars in the head last Tuesday (see below), a hit that, according to Colin Campbell, senior VP and director of hockey operations who serves as the NHL’s principal disciplinarian (the same Colin Campbell who made the decision regarding Cooke's supplemental discipline), warranted a suspension of just two games.

Given his lack of priors, I agree that Heatley deserved a lighter punishment than the one handed down to Cooke, but an elbow to the head is an elbow to the head. If the league really wants to send a message, wouldn’t sidelining one of the most skilled and highly paid forwards in the NHL for the sake of demonstrating some consistency be in its best interest?

To reiterate, Cooke gets 10 regular-season games, misses four to seven playoff games in a best-of-seven series, and is out $219,512.20 of his annual cap hit of $1.8 million. Heatley gets two regular season games and is out $80,645.16 of his annual hit of $7.5 million. Again, this is for identical hits.

The Cooke suspension is a step in the right direction, but until the league demonstrates an ability to consistently get it right what hope is there that the players will?



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