Cooke vows he's learned his lesson

Matt Cooke skates during a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome in...

Matt Cooke skates during a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Friday, October 7, 2011. (LYLE ASPINALL/QMI Agency)

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:55 AM ET

Less than 24 hours after being handed the team's lunch pail as unsung hero of his club's opening game, Matt Cooke finally got a chance to examine the metal trophy of sorts.

"Hey, there's a thermos inside," exclaimed the Pittsburgh Penguins bad boy after practice Friday in Calgary.

It was an appropriate addition given the 33-year-old mucker rarely finds himself too far from hot water.

When last we saw Cooke he was walking out of the NHL's Toronto headquarters last spring after being served what amounted to a 17-game suspension for his latest in a long series of heinous transgressions. This one was a particularly disturbing headshot delivered to Ryan McDonagh that cost him the final 10 games of the season and the first round of the playoffs.

Eligible to return for round 2, he promised he'd finally learned his lesson and vowed he'd change the way he approached the game. He said he'd have to, especially on a team that saw owner Mario Lemieux condemn growing violence in the game and star Sidney Crosby out for the season with a blindside-induced concussion.

He never got the chance as the Pens were dumped by Tampa Bay in the east quarterfinal.

After a long summer of introspection he returned to the NHL Thursday in Vancouver where he scored twice in a 4-3 win.

"After everything I've been through in the last eight months had the result of the game been the same even if I didn't score and we won I'd be happy," said Cooke, who has been suspended five times for hits to the head.

"Obviously, I won't be scoring two goals every game."

While Cooke needs to show his legions of critics his headhunting days are over, he also needs to prove to himself he can navigate his way through a league that's never before been so ready to pounce on anyone coming remotely close to crossing that line he's spent a career stomping all over.

"I'm focused on playing the right way," said Cooke, who said it's his goal to ensure he doesn't meet new discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

"Obviously it's in the back of my mind, but I don't ever intend for it to happen or for me to put myself in that position again. I'm still going to be physical. I can still help in penalty killing and hopefully be a plus player five on five. But I'm just training my thoughts in different situations."

While it might all seem contrite or hard to believe one of the NHL's most disrespectful players is committed to reform, he did go to great lengths to effect change.

"I went outside the game and got some help," said Cooke.

"I was fortunate to have great support from my family, friends, teammates and the organization. I spent a lot of time preparing to play the second round of the playoffs knowing I was going to have to change forever. That just continued into the summer, watching video and analyzing situations with a group of people under the assumption that the only way to guarantee success for me is I have to change my approach."

Unlike the past when he claimed innocence despite video evidence and plenty of carnage showing otherwise, he owns up to his last transgression.

"I defended all my suspensions previous to this one, but I realized it and recognized it and I take responsibility for what happened," said Cooke.

"I'm not na´ve to think one game is enough. I could sit here and talk about it for days but the proof is in my play."

So, how long until he's able to clear his name?

"Maybe never," was his correct response.

"All I know is a have the support of my organization and teammates. You're never going to be able to control what the media or people say."

But you can control yourself.

Well, in his case that remains to be seen.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @ericfrancis

Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada


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