Matt Cooke: a Bully's Bully
Inside the mind of the best pest in hockey.
Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Pittsburgh Penguins
Sean Avery is losing it—arms flapping, stress wrinkles forming like trenches above his perfectly waxed eyebrows. He’s leaning over the boards and directing threats at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bench. The hockey-goon-turned-Manhattan-fashionista is used to playing the part of the pest, the guy that fans love to hate.
But on this November night in Mellon Arena, the New York Rangers’ forward is being out-bullied. His spastic indignation is directed at one man: the Penguins’ Matt Cooke, who just winks, flashing Avery a toothless grin that sends him into a conniption.
What’s got Avery steaming? It could be anything—a cross-check, a slew foot (kick to the back of the skates), a face wash (substitute a hockey glove for a bath towel) or any one of the little things that culminate in the ultimate hockey question: “Wanna drop the gloves?”
Both Avery and Cooke are agitators—a role that has been around since goalies wore tassel caps for helmets. A good NHL agitator is like a bad big brother—think Wayne Arnold from “The Wonder Years.” Avery is the kind that repeatedly jabs his finger 2 inches away from your face while saying, “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.” Cooke is more direct—he trips you when Mom’s not looking then smiles innocently.
Late in the game, Avery gets so frustrated that he jumps poor, affable, rosy-cheeked Ruslan Fedotenko from behind. He gets seven minutes in penalties and a game misconduct. As referees escort him off the ice, Avery is still screaming at the Penguins’ bench. Cooke chuckles.
A week before Avery’s meltdown, Cooke made Atlanta Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk so mad that the three-time all-star chased him the length of the ice for a fight. Kovalchuk was ejected from the game. It was only the sixth fight of his career.
“It’s a good day at the office if the other team is thinking about me instead of what they need to be doing on the ice,” says Cooke.
Just 5 foot 11 inches, Cooke isn’t your typical NHL enforcer, but he has lasted 12 seasons in the league by relishing contact. Over the course of his career, he has spent more than 13 hours sitting in the penalty box. So how does he spend his timeouts?
“Most of the time I’m thinking about how I’ve been wronged by the call,” Cooke laughs. “But if I’ve spent that much time in the box, I surely must have done something wrong along the way.”
Call it Jekyll and Hyde or a healthy work-life balance. Truth is, when Cooke steps onto the cracked pavement of the Mellon Arena parking lot after games, he’s a different man.
“The first thing I do is call my family,” he says. “My oldest daughter is 16, so she’s not too fond of me fighting, but my little guy is 5 and he’s already a fan of professional wrestling, so it’s a big thrill for him.” Cooke talks about hockey with the zeal of a librarian. But bring up family and his face lights up. Perhaps it’s because he knows how precious life can be.
In 2006, he and wife Michelle experienced a devastating tragedy. Michelle’s brother Brandon and his wife, Jamie, were expecting their first child, Hope, but complications arose, and Hope was born without a heartbeat. After the funeral, Matt and Michelle started the Cooke Family Foundation of Hope to carry on her memory.
The foundation rented out a suite at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, where Matt started his career. “We had 36 Vancouver Giants games for underprivileged kids who may not otherwise be able to see games. The neat thing about the suite is that the glass is at knee height so that a wheelchair is easily accessible and the kids can have a great view. The mascot even came up to visit them.” Too humble to mention it—Cooke visited too, with presents in tow.
“Winning the Stanley Cup was amazing, but the best thing to happen in my life was my kids,” he says. The Cookes put the Stanley Cup to practical use during their day with the fabled trophy. “My middle daughter used it as a bowl for an A&W root-beer float. My son filled it up with doughnut holes.”
There’s that toothless smile again. The one that could warm your heart. Or make you throw a temper tantrum.
Matt Cooke By the Numbers:
262 Hits last season; fifth in the NHL
15 Career fights
8 Penalties taken by Cooke through 27 games this season
14 Penalties drawn by Cooke; fourth in NHL
2 Matt's "must-see" TV shows: Law & Order and, ironically, Prison Break