A little over a week ago, I wrote a piece in response to the NHL's lack of punishment of Zdeno Chara following his controversial hit on Max Pacioretty. I theorized that, even though I wasn't even positive that Chara intended to hurt Pacioretty, it was close enough that a punishment was necessary in order for the NHL to send a firm message that it, and not the players, was in control of things.
On Sunday, Matt Cooke's elbow to Ryan McDonagh's head gave the NHL a second chance to mete out a proper punishment, and it gave the micro-analyzed Pittsburgh Penguins management team an opportunity to stick to their recent 'safety-first' mantra with regard to head-shots:
Eddie Olczyk's on-air guarantee of a suspension proved prophetic when Cooke was suspended for the final ten games of the regular season and the Penguins' first playoff series on Monday.
In analyzing this situation, it is important to take a look at the action of the three key entities involved:
1) The NHL - It is perhaps funny that much of the initial reaction to Cooke's punishment was surprise, rather than dismay, at the severity of it. Yes, it was surprising. But yes, it was deserved. As TSN analyst Bob McKenzie, one of the more respected minds in hockey, tweeted:
Cooke suspension is 10 reg season games and minimum of 4 playoff games. More than I thought he would get but that's fine. Harsh but fair.
Harsh, perhaps. But merited? Definitely. Cooke has been under the microscope for some time now and all of this is of his own doing. Period. Where the NHL must now prove its mettle is in standardizing similarly harsh punishment and making it the norm, rather than the exception.
The NHL's head disciplinarian, Colin Campbell, explained his decision thusly:
"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 official 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."
Campbell's statement makes clear that the NHL considered three factors in making its decision. The first is the player's disciplinary history, and, as Campbell mentioned, Cooke is a repeat defender. Second is whether the action happened during a hockey play, meaning something that occurs naturally in a game. Though Cooke was initially in the process of trying to hit McDonagh, he went out of his way to throw the elbow towards the opponent. And, third, it was an obvious head-shot.
For comparison's sake, take a look at Dany Heatley's elbow last week, targeted at the head of Steve Ott:
For this, Heatley got two games. Mainly, I suppose, for not being a repeat offender. Had it been Cooke, the punishment would have been more severe. This is expected. But it should also be expected that two players engaging in very similar actions should receive similar suspensions. And my preference is for each to be closer to Cooke's rather than to Heatley's.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins Management - In the wake of February's catastrophe against the New York Islanders, Mario Lemieux made his proud proclamation that the NHL needed to clamp down on dangerous play. He was widely mocked and accused of hypocrisy because, after all, he employs Matt Cooke.
Shortly after, Lemieux sent a letter to the league (and leaked one to the press) outlining his proposed method of fining teams based on the number of games that their players are suspended, noting that, under his proposal, the Penguins would've owed $600,000 this year.
But, still, he employed Matt Cooke.
Really, in light of Cooke's actions on Sunday, the only thing the Penguins possibly could do in this situation is to condemn Cooke for the hit and applaud the punishment. Universally. And they did.
"The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game. 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."
"I don't think you can talk about eliminating head shots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect that to be examined, as what looks to be contact right to the head, on the play," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "The league will look at that and treat it as such."
Mr. Bylsma said Mr. Cooke is "fully capable of playing a physical, hitting game within the rules," but acknowledged that there had been numerous times when he had failed to do so.
"We're going to have to go through and establish just where those situations are, that you still can play a hard, physical game and play within the rules," the coach said. "It's something he's going to have to learn going forward."
It's all really straightforward stuff and accurate stuff, but was necessary. And as Garth Snow proved, not all general managers possess the swiftest of minds.
3). Matt Cooke - To be fair to Cooke, it is worth hearing his own words to the press, following his disciplinary hearing, where he took responsibility for his actions and admitted fault:
"I realize and understand, more so now than ever, that I need to change," Mr. Cooke said Monday night. "That's what I wanted my message to be."
"I'm fortunate that Ryan McDonagh wasn't hurt," he said. "I don't want to hurt anybody. That's not my intention. I know that I can be better. ... I made a mistake, and I'm the one who's accountable for that. And I take full responsibility for it."
Though some of this is hard to believe, it's a start, and Cooke can grow from this whole mess of a season. Probably not, but we can hope.
But, if it is the case and Cooke really has seen the light, he'll have to prove it when he returns to the ice ... a prospect he may have to wait an entire summer before realizing.