TORONTO - There are days, like yesterday, when I wish that David Branch, not Gary Bettman, was running the National Hockey League.
When it comes to suspensions, Branch, the junior hockey czar, takes no prisoners.
He is like boxing’s Joe Cortez: Fair but firm.
In Branch’s class, you can’t chance misbehaving.
And if you do, you certainly don’t want to do it more than once.
Do so, the way Matt Cooke did on Sunday afternoon, with elbow flying, and responsibility nowhere to be found, and Branch would throw the book at you — and maybe a couple of other sundry items as well.
Yesterday, Colin Campbell and friends threw the book at Matt Cooke.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hardcover.
The paperback punishment was strong by the NHL’s regular namby-pamby standards, just not strong enough for a multi-time offender who clearly doesn’t get it.
The punishment wasn’t strong enough at this time, wasn’t strong enough in this current and crisis-filled hockey culture.
It should have been the rest of the season and all of the playoffs, which it might end up being the case should the Pittsburgh Penguins not advance beyond the first round.
Had Branch made the decision, I’m certain based on his history and Cooke’s history, the winger’s season would be over.
And we’re not certain about next season either to be honest.
That would have been the best of all messages for the dirtiest player in all of hockey.
And we’re not certain if the mindless Cooke will ever comprehend the message.
As the forever fair-minded Gord Stellick pointed out on radio Monday morning, when your neighbourhood is filled with speed traps and you’re aware of it, you naturally slow down.
Matt Cooke hasn’t been smart enough to slow down.
His elbow to the head of New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh had almost nothing to do with all the issues that have been echoing around hockey arenas these days.
It wasn’t about the game getting too fast.
It wasn’t about equipment being too big.
It wasn’t about the boards being too hard or arenas with unsafe areas.
It wasn’t about concussions or fighting.
Pure and simple it was yet another cheap shot by a career cheap-shot artist.
From the guy who basically ruined Marc Savard’s career.
From the guy who altered Vinny Lecavalier’s career.
From the guy who injured Andrei Markov’s knee.
Just how much tumult, how much damage, how many careers will be altered before the NHL finally says enough.
It could have said enough for the season on Monday but the NHL showed just a touch of leniency, even if Cooke is losing more than $219,000 in lost salary.
As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber wrote not long ago, “disbelief has been suspended more often than Cooke.”
This is Cooke’s fifth time suspended.
What’s important to note is that some of the worst things he’s gotten away with have not resulted in suspensions.
There can be no leniency for him anymore.
There can only be scorn and disgust.
It would be fascinating to hear what Mario Lemieux thinks of all this. Lemieux has recently spoken out about the integrity of the game and followed it up with a letter to Bettman, first reported by Pierre LeBrun of espn.com.
“The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future,” Lemieux wrote.
“We need to review, upgrade and more clearly define our policies in this regard, so that they can provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game.”
As owner of the Penguins, Lemieux could back his own words up today.
He could suspend Cooke indefinitely for conduct unbecoming a Penguins player. He could deal with the Players’ Association grievance later but make a strong statement now.
Instead, he will likely do nothing of the kind. Instead, he will likely say nothing on the subject, even though his recent letter to Bettman proposed a fine system for teams that employ the suspended player.
Under the Lemieux doctrine, for an 11-15 game suspension, the fine would be $750,000. For more than 15 games, the fine would be $1 million. For repeat offenders, like Cooke, the fine would double.
In other words, if Lemieux got his way, the Cooke suspension, depending how many playoff games he ends up missing, would have cost the owner $2 million.
“The suspensions themselves don’t seem to be deterring these illegal acts and tactics,” Lemieux wrote to Bettman.
“We think it’s time the teams also are held responsible.”
Mario Lemieux owns the team Matt Cooke plays for. It’s time he held himself responsible as owner.
That’s the kind of integrity he talks about and is searching for. Failing that he must immediately back away from his very own words of scorn.