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Formerly one of the most disliked players in the NHL, Matt Cooke is now forging a new direction

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland — The morning fog grows so thick outside Mary Brown’s Centre that South Side Hills, an imposing rock outcropping standing between St. John’s and the rough waters of the north Atlantic Ocean, isn’t visible a few hundred meters away. Inside the empty arena, the only voice is not loud but still penetrating. A coach is standing in the middle of a group of professional hockey players. He turns his head side-to-side, looking for recognition, any sign of life. “Whatever the f— is up,” he barks at players kneeling before him, “make sure you’re ready to go tonight.” After that, he turns and leaves the morning skate hours before a game. The coach is Matt Cooke. He is wearing a beige ball cap and he’s added a few pounds from his own playing days. But he hasn’t lost any of the energy of his 16-season NHL career. He’s the same Matt Cooke who would rise to the top of the list of most reviled NHL players of the past two decades. His unprovoked open-ice shoulder check on Marc Savard in March 2010 is still one of the most universally condemned hits in modern NHL history. It left the Boston Bruins forward with a concussion, contributed to the end of his career and led to a change in the NHL rules meant to deter blindside hits. A year later, Cooke was suspended for 17 games for a punishing elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke also lacerated Erik Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon when his skate came down on the NHL All-Star’s left leg during a board battle. The questions about whether Cooke was a hard-nosed player gave way to questions about whether he was a malicious one. Then-Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk labeled Cooke a “goon” who “should never be playing in this league”. Cooke’s final suspension was seven games for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in the 2014 playoffs. Many believed he was incapable of changing. When his career ended a year later, any player looking to skate through the middle of the ice untouched breathed a sigh of relief. But now he’s a rookie head coach of the Newfoundland Growlers, the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A leader of young men. The shaper of young hockey minds. For those who remember Matt Cooke on the ice, it might be a chilling thought.

“Matt Cooke the person has always been different from Matt Cooke the player,” he says. The first hint of Cooke’s future came when he was just a 5-foot-1 13-year-old playing minor hockey for the Quinte Red Devils, in Belleville, Ont. Physical play was ingrained in his game in the early 1990s, but he was never taught what that should look like. It led Cooke to then-Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma. After the 2010-11 season, Bylsma took Cooke under his wing for repeated one-on-one video and on-ice sessions. “It was a point of reflection about his career, who he was as a player and how he was perceived,” Bylsma says. “He had a desire to change that.” Cooke says if he could, one thing he’d change is that March 7, 2010, hit on Savard. “At the time, to survive in the game, I felt like Matt Cooke the player was the guy that made the middle of the ice harder for people to get to,” he says. “Now there’s a specific rule in place that I would have been suspended for a lot of games for that hit. But at the time, legally within the game, I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get a penalty and I wasn’t suspended. I hate the fact that Marc was hurt.” Cooke has never spoken to Savard. He said he tried to get in touch for a month after the hit. “You can only get rejected so many times,” Cooke says softly. Savard, now an assistant coach for the Calgary Flames, did not reply to a text message seeking comment. For Cooke, it’s a part of his past. “I haven’t thought about it in a long time,” he says. “Back then, I wanted to apologize. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t personal. It could have been Milan Lucic who crossed the middle. The play would have been the same.” When his playing career ended after the 2014-15 season, Cooke ran a hockey academy in Minnesota and coached at two high schools. If Cooke’s players expected him to teach them how to deliver thunderous checks, they were disappointed. “The reality is different from the perception (of Cooke),” Bylsma says. He also has stayed busy doing other things. Cooke paid for suites for underprivileged children to watch NHL games in multiple stops during his career. He traveled to war-torn Haiti to donate time and money to charities and help build orphanages. But none of that got him any closer to a return to the league.

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