PHILADELPHIA -- There have been no shortage of opinions on the NHL's latest head-hit controversy and that has everything to do with the reputation of the player in the center of the firestorm.
Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke has earned his notoriety through a series of dangerous hits over the years. His actions in a game this weekend against the New York Rangers has now ensured that Cooke's well-earned bad rep will remain with him for the rest of his career, and perhaps even longer.
The punishment for Cooke this time around has been swift and exacting, as the NHL opted to suspend the forward for the remainder of the regular season (10 games) as well as the first round of the playoffs. The total length of the ban will end up lasting between 14 and 17 games, depending on how long Pittsburgh's potential first round playoff series takes to conclude.
The most surprising thing about the hefty penalty levied by the NHL against Cooke is that the league normally hands out these big suspensions when the victim is seriously hurt. In this case, however, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh was able to stay in the game after Cooke caught him in the head with an elbow.
The worst thing about Cooke's hit on McDonagh was that it's hard to see it in any way other than a deliberate blow to the head. Cooke raised his elbow early and blind-sided McDonagh with it, but luckily the young Rangers blueliner was not a stationary target and the blow wound up being not much more than a glancing shot.
But the NHL wisely realized, for once, that in this case they needed to make an example of Cooke, especially after they infamously opted not to suspend him after his blind-side hit to Boston's Marc Savard a little over a year ago. Of course, Cooke's hit on Savard, which resulted in a Grade 2 concussion, was the main impetus for the league's rule change on blind-side hits to the head.
"Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position," said NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell. "This isn't the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behavior on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response."
With the lengthy suspension, it's pretty clear that the NHL is saying it has had enough of Cooke's antics. Going forward it will be interesting to see if the huge penalty will cause Cooke to change the way he plays, as he expressed interest in doing when he spoke about the incident with Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune on Monday.
It's not just the long exile that should work as motivation for Cooke to clean up his act; he has also been left to twist in the wind by his organization, including Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who could ultimately decide to cut ties with his club's most controversial player.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Shero said in a statement on 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. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
Shero's unequivocal denouncement of Cooke's latest actions comes just days after he led an unsuccessful campaign at last week's GM meetings to ban shots to the head altogether.
If being shunned by his own club isn't enough, perhaps the hit Cooke's wallet will take may cause him to change his game for the better. This is the fifth and costliest suspension of Cooke's career, as he will forfeit over $219,000 of his salary. He lost nearly $88,000 back in February when he was suspended four games for a blind-side hit on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin.
Cooke may also be motivated to change should Pittsburgh bow out in the opening round of the playoffs. The club is already without Evgeni Malkin for the season and superstar captain Sidney Crosby is still sidelined with a concussion sustained back in January.
Although Cooke is not a deadly offensive weapon like Malkin or Crosby, he is a valuable player to Pittsburgh, and not just for his physical nature. Cooke, who is signed with the Pens through the 2012-13 season, is an excellent penalty-killer and is a big reason Pittsburgh is tied for second in the league on the PK.
One thing is certain: if the Penguins make it past the opening round of the playoffs, all eyes will once again be on Cooke. It will be very interesting to see whether the admonishment he's received from the league, the media, his team and fellow NHLers will cause a notable change in his style of play or if he will continue on the same path.
Critics of dangerous hits in the NHL are always putting forth long suspensions as the cure-all to the league's problem, but if the longest suspension in Penguins' history fails to change Cooke, how can we expect such bans to have an effect on an entire league?