On March 7, 2010, Matt Cooke delivered a blow to the head of Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard, knocking the player out of the game with what was diagnosed as a Grade 2 Concussion. With news that Savard could miss significant portions of the 2010-11 NHL Season, one is left to wonder what the lasting impact of the hit could be on the career of each player.
At Deadspin last week, in the roundup of stories from the previous night, was a reference to the retirement of Darcy Tucker:
To say NHL cheap-shot artist Darcy Tucker retired yesterday is to say nobody was interested in procuring cheap-shot artist Darcy Tucker's services.
This was also followed by a YouTube clip of Tucker's infamous hit on Michael Peca. For anyone familiar with Deadspin, the phrasing of the statement shouldn't be a shock, given the website's comedic/cynical tone.
However, two specific parts of what was essentially a minor snippet stood out: 1) the "cheap-shot artist" description of Tucker and 2) the immediate inclusion of that video. Now, no NHL fan would equate Darcy Tucker with Mother Teresa. Tucker's physical style often found itself on the wrong side of sportsmanship and the rules.
He was also, however, a talented two-way player. He was a hard hitter and archetypal power forward, the quintessential player you'd love to have on your team, yet hate to play against. And the first thing that comes up when he retires? That one brutal moment where he changed Peca's career forever.
Will it be this?
Savard, out of the play, goes down after Cooke flies in from the side, with a big tucked shoulder/elbow combo to the Bruins playmaker's head, jarring Savard's brain out of position and into his skull. Welcome to the wonderful world of head injuries and their lasting effects, Mr. Savard.
From that hit, Savard also received a parting gift of ongoing nausea and migraines, part of the typically slow post-concussion syndrome recovery, and, as an added bonus, career uncertainty.
And what did Cooke receive in exchange? Nothing whatsoever from the Colin Campbell and the NHL's notoriously silly disciplinary system. Which isn't the biggest shame from all of this, but it is a shame.
Matt Cooke is a solid, underrated player. He puts in a good shift on both ends of the ice, manages to play with a tremendous motor and can galvanize a team after a furious shift. Though most at home on the third line, he has proven that he can fill in on the top two for brief periods when needed. Cooke is also effective on the penalty kill, can instigate with the best of them and tightrope-walks the lines of legality in the NHL with mixed success.
But when he does fall off of that tightrope, there can be lasting, irrevocable, needless effects. Instead of being forever remembered for being a good, gritty hockey player who played an important role on a Stanley Cup-winning team, he now runs the risk of being known as the guy who changed the course of Marc Savard's career. Not a hockey player, but, a "cheap-shot artist."
All so he could throw that silly, useless hit behind the play.
He's now amongst the Marty McSorleys, Chris Simons, Ulf Samuelssons, Todd Bertuzzis and Darcy Tuckers of the NHL ... men whose career obituaries will be punctuated by their lack of respect towards the general welfare of their fellow professionals.
Hockey is a physical game, and the art of the body check is one to be savored. Scott Stevens lining up a man in center ice, obliterating an Eric Lindros for having his head down is a tremendously important, if brutal, ability. Stevens, though, won't be remembered simply as the man who took out Lindros.
Lindros, on the other hand, will be remembered as a talented player whose career was cut short because he couldn't learn to keep his head up. Stevens' and Darius Kasparitis' hits on him were straight up, not from the blindside.
That is the difference between a physical player and a "cheap-shot artist" in the NHL. This definition does not need updating and has been the same from the game's inception.
So, what if Cooke were to change his game now? To take that blindside, high hit, that unnecessarily dirty aspect out of his game? That's not to take penalties away, as those are a necessary byproduct of physicality, but remove that extra added malice.
Could Cooke still be the same player he is without it, and, if so, is it too late to rewrite Cooke's legacy? Can Cooke change? Is he even willing to?
At this point, all of these questions are merely rhetorical. Cooke's obituary can change, but he must affect that change on his own.