Ron Cook: Matt Cooke's departure may hurt Penguins

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The one who got away might hurt the most.

Literally and figuratively.

There is some good news to Matt Cooke's departure from the Penguins for the Minnesota Wild. He's back in the Western Conference. Can you imagine if Cooke had pulled a Max Talbot and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers or some other division opponent? Penguins stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang don't want to imagine that. They don't want to think about having to play Cooke three or four times next season. They watched him the past five seasons. They know how hard he plays. They know how difficult he is to play against.

It's understandable why Cooke had to leave the Penguins. They ran out of money under the salary cap. The Wild gave him a three-year, $7.5 million deal, $700,000 more per year than he was making here. There was no way the Penguins could match that offer for a third-line player.

"At 34, to get the raise I got and to be able to secure my family's future, it's great," Cooke said.

Good for Cooke.

Bad for the Penguins.

Cooke brought sandpaper to the rink every game. He rubbed opponents raw. In the beginning, it often was with dirty hits. The past two seasons, after he changed his game not just to stay with the Penguins but to remain in the NHL, it was with good, hard, clean hockey plays. Cooke might not have been the Penguins' best player in the playoffs this spring, but he performed his role better than anyone on the team. He was a ferocious forechecker and terrific penalty-killer. If Crosby, Malkin and Letang had done their jobs as well as Cooke did his, the Penguins would have hoisted the Stanley Cup.

"I've still got a lot of fire in my belly," Cooke said. "I hate to lose. That bugs me. That's why I had to go someplace where they expect to win every time they lace 'em up."

Cooke knows he is leaving a Cup-caliber organization. Even though the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final, they have been installed as the favorites to win the Cup next season by the wise guys in Las Vegas.

"With the core group of guys they have signed for the long term, they're always going to be in the conversation," Cooke said. "But at the end of the day, you've still got to do it. It's the hardest trophy in sports to win. We saw that the last four years."

The Penguins haven't lifted the Cup since the 2008-09 season, Cooke's first in Pittsburgh. That, clearly, was his highlight here.

"Our whole team changed when Dan [Bylsma] took over as coach," Cooke said. "To be a part of going 18-3-4 down the stretch was amazing. We just felt like we couldn't lose."

The lowlights came the next two seasons. Cooke, who came to the Penguins as a free agent from the Washington Capitals after a long career with Vancouver, where he had built a reputation as a cheap-shot player, earned condemnation in March 2010 for his vicious hit to the head of Boston Bruins center Marc Savard, essentially ending Savard's career. He then was suspended for the final 10 games of the 2010-11 regular season and the seven-game playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning after his unconscionable head shot to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. His absence was a big part of the Penguins' series loss to the Lightning.

That suspension did provide Cooke with a warm memory of the Pittsburgh hockey fans. They gave him loud applause when he took the ice for the Penguins' Shirts Off Their Backs promotion after the final regular-season game.

"There I am, in my suit, not knowing what to expect," Cooke said. "I had the feeling that I had left my team high and dry. What comes with the team are the fans behind them. I had let those people down, too. To get the ovation I did that night was huge for me."

That support is a big reason Cooke said he and his family will return to Pittsburgh to live. He talked of his charitable work with the Ronald McDonald House and the many wonderful relationships he has built at North Way Community Church in Wexford.

"We feel like this is home," Cooke said. "Who knows? Maybe in three years, I'll be able to come back here and finish my career. If I'm done, we'll still come back and ingrain ourselves in the community again."

Cooke has much to do in Minnesota before then. You probably won't be surprised to know that many in the fan base there don't think much of him. He always has been a player you love if he's on your team and hate if he plays for someone else. Crosby, Malkin and Letang will be able to second that thought one day soon. So will you. You will cheer Cooke like crazy when the Penguins do a scoreboard tribute to him the first time he comes back with the Wild. Then, you will boo him when he goes after Crosby the first time.

"Vancouver and Minnesota were in the same division so I was in my share of battles with the Wild players," Cooke said, fairly giggling. "I played a lot against [Marian] Gaborik when he was there. I had a few run-ins with Jason Marshall and Matt Johnson ...

"But I'm a different player now. I know I'm going to have to earn the fans' trust."

Cooke will. He did it with the Penguins. He will do it with the Wild.

Pittsburgh's loss is Minnesota's gain.

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Ron Cook: 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 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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