Cook: Penguins' Cooke found man of steel to lean on

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The best place to start is during a television timeout at the Penguins-Winnipeg game Tuesday night. Curse your luck if you went for a beer or made a bathroom run or checked your cell phone and missed a "5 Questions With Penguins Defenseman Brooks Orpik" segment on the Consol Energy Center scoreboard. Matt Cooke was sitting on the Penguins bench. He's glad he didn't miss it.

"What's the best advice you've ever been given?" Orpik was asked.

" 'Never be satisfied. Always try to get better,'" Orpik said.

"What a great answer," Cooke said later. "That doesn't just apply to hockey. It applies to life."

Everybody knows about the re-invention of Cooke as a player. He scored his career-best 17th goal in the 5-1 win against Nashville Thursday night. He's a strong defensive forward on a team that is a heavy favorite to win its second Stanley Cup in four seasons. He's a top penalty-killer on, arguably, the NHL's top penalty-killing unit.

Best of all, he's doing it without the rough stuff that earned him the deserved reputation as one of the league's dirtiest players. He was nominated last week for the NHL's Masterton Trophy, which goes to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

But Cooke also is working hard to get better as a person. He has become close to one of the great men in Pittsburgh sports history. "He's an older brother to me," Cooke said. "My mentor."

Former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith.

"I'll never forget the way he was there for me when I had my situation last season," Cooke said.

Cooke was referencing his 17-game suspension at the end of the season for throwing an elbow at the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. It included the Penguins' seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I let everyone down," Cooke said. "It wasn't like Sid [Crosby] or [Evgeni Malkin]. They were injured and couldn't help the team. I was healthy and there was nothing I could do to help. That was a gut-wrenching feeling. I just felt so helpless."

Smith helped Cooke get through it, man to man, one professional athlete to another.

"I knew he knew what I was going through," Cooke said. "He was a set of ears for me. He listened to me and perked me up at a time I really needed it. I never had that kind of relationship with someone before."

Cooke and Smith had met through their sons early in the 2010-11 school year. Jackson Cooke and Elijah Smith were first-graders at Eden Christian Academy in Wexford and became best friends. That led to sleepovers, which led to the parents becoming friends.

"Let me tell you a funny story about that," Smith said. "The first time I really met Matt, he came to our house to pick up Jackson. The next thing I know, he has a Nerf gun and he's running all through my house, shooting darts at the kids. My wife and I just looked at each other. Here's this grown man who we hardly knew, running all over our house. It was crazy."

Is it any wonder Smith's five children adore Cooke?

"He might be the biggest kid I know," Smith said.

There also were serious conversations. Cooke watched Smith deal with injuries that led to his release by the Steelers early this month. He had heard of Smith's quiet strength when Elijah was diagnosed at 4 with leukemia in 2008. That strength blew away Smith's teammates, who respected him maybe more than anyone on the Steelers.

Elijah had his final cancer treatment on Dec. 23. "Jackson was with him when he had his port taken out and he was given a clean bill of health," Cooke said. "What a blessing."

Cooke tapped into Smith's strength at the lowest point of his hockey career. Many media and Penguins fans were quick to call for the team to trade or even release Cooke. That would have amused Smith if he didn't know how much his friend was hurting.

"It's amazing to me how quick people are to judge," Smith said. "They don't know you, but they take one two-second glimpse from the heat of battle and judge you as a person. It's not right. It's not fair. It's not just."

Smith made sure Cooke didn't start doubting himself, that he didn't stop believing in himself as a hockey player. Everyone in the Penguins organization, from owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle to general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, delivered the same message. Shero said the team never seriously considered getting rid of Cooke.

"They said they believed in me," Cooke said.

It's a daily battle for Cooke. "An ongoing process for the rest of my career," he called it. "It's never going to be over and done with."

Cooke knows his next dirty hit could be his last in the NHL. "I'm fine with that. I'm up for that challenge," he said. "I think I'm better off because of it. In the past, I put on this façade and tried so hard to be the man. Now, I'm enjoying the game so much more. I'm laughing. I'm smiling. The game has never been this much fun for me."

The best part still is ahead.

"The playoffs are when I feel like I'm the most effective," Cooke said. "Not to toot my own horn, but I feel like I'm a guy who can help my team win."

Smith will be around for the ride. He went to his first NHL game as Cooke's guest when the Penguins played Columbus Feb. 26. He fell in love with the action. He was back Thursday night to see Cooke get his goal against Nashville.

"I told him, 'Bro, this is the stuff they write books about,' " Smith said. " 'Everybody counted you out. Now look at you.' "

A guy with a chance to be a 20-goal scorer.

A key member of the team to beat in the playoffs.

And don't forget or minimize this:

A better human being.


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