Anger management

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

He knows he's hated. He knows that every night, just about every player on every team in the NHL, given half a chance, will try to ram him through the boards.

Or beat him into a puddle.

Or, if he's really having a good game, ram him through the end boards and then beat him into a puddle.

He understands it. It's his job to make other players want to hurt him. And he doesn't blame them for trying. In fact, if nobody tried hurting Jarkko Ruutu, or Matt Cooke, or any of the other shift disturbers who get paid to create havoc in the NHL, they'd be sitting in the press box.

"You have more bumps and bruises when you play this role," admits Ruutu, a Finnish troublemaker with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"You have to know what's happening around you all the time. You have to protect yourself because you have a bulls-eye on you, but I enjoy that; you know you've been involved in a game. There's nothing I hate more than everybody floating back and forth, no hitting. It's not fun to play in those."

There aren't many of those when a really good (or, really bad, depending on your perspective) pest is involved.

And while they're some of the most reviled, least respected people in sports, there's no arguing their ability to turn a boring game into a blood-boiling festival of anger. Which, if you've shelled out $100 a ticket, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I know, from guys coming to this team from other teams, that they didn't like to play me because I play physical, and it makes it a tough game," said Cooke, who's been frustrating opponents to near insanity for years.

"But I'm not a guy who goes out and sticks guys in the back of the leg. I'm not a guy who hits from behind. I'm a player who, I think, is honest and plays hard and takes the body when it's there."

He'll get some argument from opponents who say he's a back-stabber who not only has a visor on his helmet, but wears one on each fist.

Not "backing it up," of course, is what infuriates people most about the antagonists. It's also their most effective weapon.

They know it wouldn't enrage opponents half as much, wouldn't sucker them into half as many stupid penalties, if everyone could demand satisfaction with the simple drop of a glove. Running away from your battles is a secret passed down from Ken Linesman to Esa Tikkanen to Claude Lemieux.

"I don't want to set any limits, so sometimes I can be dirty," admitted Ruutu. "But you have to be smart about it. I know the refs are looking for me all the time, so obviously I'm not that bad or I'd be sitting in the box all night. Everybody can form their own opinion. I'm still going to play the way I play."

How does one become a rat?

"I never set out to do this on purpose, that's just who I am," said Ruutu.

"I think it's just my competitive nature. You play a hard game, you hit guys, and most of them don't like it. So they get irritated, I guess. It's not fun to get hit.

"And if the fans don't like me and the other team doesn't like me, good. It's great that everyone gets emotionally involved. That they love or they hate you. As long as I'm not grey, it's fine."

Cooke swears he doesn't go searching for it, that trouble just seems to find him.

"It's one of those things that if you run around looking for it doesn't happen, but you take the opportunity when it's there," he said. "And you know certain guys that it bothers more, just from reputation."

And words sometimes speak louder than actions.

"You know that when a guy is frustrated, that he hasn't scored and that he's been hit a couple of times and they're trying to get back at you, you're going to try and fuel the fire that way," said Ruutu. "I think it's pretty natural for me."

Ever say anything he regrets?

"Maybe, but I can't remember. Whatever comes out of my mouth I don't think too much."


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