Roughly a year ago, Matt Cooke was among a bunch of Penguins at teammate Jordan Staal's wedding in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was going to be a memorable day for Staal no matter what, but then word came that he had been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Saturday, Cooke recalled that moment and the mixed feelings of sadness and excitement Staal experienced.
"I remember telling Staalsie that it was just business," Cooke said. "We as players don't always like to admit that, but it's true. It's a business."
Cooke had that same conversation with himself over the weekend after leaving the Penguins as a free agent and signing a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. That's a raise of $700,000 per year from the average of $1.8 million he earned with the Penguins.
"I understand the situation here," Cooke said. "I have no angst against the Penguins. I'll be forever grateful to the organization and the fans here."
The Penguins would have loved to bring back Cooke, but ran out of money under the salary cap after giving lucrative contract extensions to Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang and signing free agents Pascal Dupuis and Rob Scuderi.
"After Pascal signed, it didn't take a rocket scientist to do the math," Cooke said. "It became pretty clear that I was going to be the odd man out."
Cooke came to the Penguins as a free agent in 2008, just in time to help them win the Stanley Cup in 2009. He was a valuable role player as a checking-line specialist and top penalty-killer, but also had his share of baggage. He was suspended for the final 10 games of the 2010-11 season and the seven-game playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning after his brutal hit to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Penguins owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux and general manager Ray Shero decided to stick with Cooke the next season after he promised to eliminate the cheap hits from his game. The team's fans also welcomed him back with open arms.
"Sure, they could have gotten rid of me," Cooke said. "That would have been the easy thing to do. I'll be forever grateful to the fans, Ray, Dan [Bylsma], Mario and Ron. The way they treated me was unbelievable."
With the Wild, Cooke will be reunited with a couple of former Penguins staffers -- general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo.
"They basically want me to bring to Minnesota what I brought to the Penguins," Cooke said. "But they know my game has changed and they are totally fine with that. They just want me to play the way I did the past two seasons."
Cooke said he and his family will return to Pittsburgh to live after his career is finished.
"We feel like this is home. There was initial sadness about leaving, but I'm excited about the next step. I'm going to be given big responsibility in Minnesota. I'm looking forward to that."
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM