The story of how Matt Cooke dealt with his wife's near-fatal kidney infection is inspiring. But it gets diluted when contrasted with and used as an excuse for his on-ice play.
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Rob Rossi penned a heart-wrenching article Wednesday that chronicled the near-death struggle Matt Cooke's wife, Michelle, suffered through and survived in early 2011.
The story really is a sad one and your heart has to go out to Cooke while reading it. Rossi describes Cooke's attempts to reach Michelle a few months ago, after she had just gotten sick:
About 600 miles separated him from his wife, who was lying in a hospital bed at UPMC Mercy, Uptown. She had fallen ill a day after the Winter Classic, another presumed reoccurrence of a kidney infection. Four days later, as her husband - one of the most infamous players in the NHL for his controversial hits - was frantically calling before a game-day breakfast with Penguins teammates in Montreal, Michelle Cooke was dying.
"I get a hold of a doctor, and he says, 'I think you should come back right now,' " Cooke said. "I got there, and they've got a chaplain giving her the blessing (for recovery) and our kids are in that room."
The story goes on to describe how Cooke dealt with the trauma of his wife's very real, very difficult situation, about how he had to shoulder a burden at home while still trying to play hockey.
It's an inspiring tale. I just loathe that the story is being used as a pretense to defend Cooke for the litany of dirty hits he laid out last year. And, by his own words, Cooke is loathe to make that comparison as well.
"I don't use (Michelle's health) as an excuse for anything that happened last season," he said. "I'm responsible for my actions out there."
He shouldn't use it as an excuse. If Cooke is the new man he says he is, he would have to understand that there is no excuse for regularly issuing vicious and illegal hits, as he has done over the course of not only last season, but his entire career.
And I don't really blame Cooke for how the story reads, I blame Rossi.
Before I get into why, let me say that I respect Rossi as a beat reporter very much. I recall him writing something, though I can't recall whether it was on a blog or on Twitter, about how he's often beaten to the punch on breaking news because he takes time to check and then double check sources to ascertain the veracity of what he's about to report.
I completely respect that, putting the ego trip of being first to break a story aside in lieu of being sure that what you're reporting is accurate. That is the heart of reporting, and I love Rossi for embodying it.
What I didn't like from Rossi in this story is that he wove it into a tale that somehow gave Cooke a certain level of carte blanche for his actions.
Of course, he doesn't say that in the story, but he weaves the tale he wishes to weave by including relevant quotes, descriptions and factoids that paint the proper picture. We all do it - it's a reality of writing. In this instance, Rossi gets it wrong by meshing the story of the crisis that the Cooke family overcame with Cooke's brutal hits on the rink.
And we've heard it before, though, to be clear, not necessarily from Rossi.
In February, we heard the story of the kindness Cooke showed towards a young man from Western Pennsylvania, who had suffered brain damage and had been paralyzed in a car accident. This came out right after Cooke was suspended four games for a hit on Fedor Tyutin.
Sports Illustrated recalled the same story a month later, in several hundred more words. A couple of weeks before the Sports Illustrated piece ran, Canada's National Post ran a story about Cooke's nice, respectful demeanor and charitable nature off of the ice while comparing it with the necessity of him being a villain on it. The context remained the same as the other stories: despite his ruthless on-ice style, Cooke was a saint away from the job.
That's wonderful. I truly believe it. I love the fact that he has a charity, and I love that he showed so much warmth and kindness to that young man without asking for it to be shared publicly.
But do all of Cooke's good deeds have to be juxtaposed against his tendency to lay devastating, illegal hits?
As Rossi's story continues, and it goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, it starts to border on absurdist satire.
Cooke said he has reviewed 20 hours of hits - his own and those by others such as Rangers forward Ryan Callahan - so he could learn how to deliver a legal check.
It took studying nearly a day's worth of hits on tape for a 32-year-old NHL player to learn how to deliver a legal check? In the Sports Illustrated piece, Cooke recalled learning how to hit legally in juniors.
"The first thing Paul Gillis, who became my coach that first year, said to me was, 'You're playing the same way in the OHL that I played in the NHL; keep your elbows down,'" Cooke recalls. His elbows came down - shifting his focus from hitting to playing - and his stats went up.
So this isn't something new. And yet, from Rossi's piece:
Cooke said his new approach to hitting would have changed the way he approached McDonagh. He could have gone after the puck - McDonagh was in the process of dumping the puck from the neutral zone into the offensive zone - with his stick blade. Cooke said if he "had to hit (McDonagh), I'd hit his hands with my body."
His new approach to hitting is to separate the player from the puck, as opposed to separating the player's head from his body? Meaning, his new plan when checking is to deliver a legal check?
"Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit," Michelle said. "That was the difference I noticed. This (hit) bothered him."
And brutally blindsiding Marc Savard didn't? Or the Tyutin hit? Or the multiple others?
Even worse, Cooke's blindside elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh came after his wife had recovered. She was even in attendance.
He saw a light in mid-March, though. Michelle attended her first game since the Classic. She, her mom and a friend were at Consol Energy Center when the Penguins faced the New York Rangers in an afternoon contest March 20.
That was the last game Cooke played.
Isn't the angle of everything off of the rink trying on Cooke's soul and putting things into perspective now rendered utterly moot?
Instead of focusing the story simply on how Cooke shouldered the burden of his wife's illness and family obligations, the hitting angle had to come back into the story. If it was merely about Cooke doing what he did, not bringing it up as an excuse during the season, the story would have been infinitely better.
Readers are intelligent, readers are aware. They can draw their own conclusions if they wish. They don't need to be not-so-subtly pointed in that direction. If you wish to do so, that's what opinion articles, like this one, are for.
Now, the very valid and interesting facts of what Cooke went through are clouded by the added angle of what went on on the rink and how somehow all of that made up for it. Of course, that's just my interpretation of the story, but it's a valid one, I think.
As a close friend recently told me, I hate when the truth is twisted into a narrative. Unfortunately, that's what happened here and it clouded an otherwise engaging story.