Penguins' Cooke takes on strange, new role: skate-sharpener

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It figures that even during an NHL lockout, Matt Cooke is a polarizing player.

The winger has a sharpening machine and has been helping with some of his teammates' skates in their alternative dressing room area at Southpointe.

The reviews are mixed.

"Mine were good today," forward Craig Adams said after nine players skated Tuesday.

"He actually does not too bad a job," defenseman Deryk Engelland said.

Then, there is defenseman Matt Niskanen.

"I think he's terrible," Niskanen cracked. "Guys are falling all over the place when he does their skates, so he's not touching mine."

Cooke deflected praise and criticism when asked about his informal role as a fill-in equipment manager, but he acknowledged that the group of Penguins that has been skating together four days a week has used levity and camaraderie to offset the frustration of a work stoppage that began Sept. 15.

"If you've ever spent time around us or watched ['24/7' on] HBO, we're quite the comical group," Cooke said. "We like to get after each other. That makes it fun. That makes it light. It makes it easier to come to the rink every day."

The group has ranged from nine to 14 Penguins. They have ice booked for several more weeks, which might be a good case of foresight.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called two hours of talks Tuesday between the league and the NHL Players' Association in New York "not overly encouraging."

He also said the league lost close to $100 million because of the cancellation of all preseason games. An announcement concerning the start of the regular season, which is scheduled for Oct. 11, is expected soon.

So the Penguins who aren't playing in other leagues or working out elsewhere continue to convene at Southpointe, using a public locker room rather than the more comfortable Penguins facilities on the other side of the ice surface.

No contact is allowed with team employees, including Penguins equipment manager Dana Heinze and his staff, so the players are making do, as they did for years on youth teams. That includes schlepping their bags, dealing with equipment malfunctions, anything that arises.

They are getting some help from Jason Binnie, manager of KoSports, a hockey store in Canonsburg. He fills in as needed as a goaltender, offers an alternative to Cooke as a skate-sharpener, washes some of the towels and other laundry.

"I'll help out as long as I can," said Binnie, who during past work stoppages got on the ice to take shots from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who is on the other side of this lockout as a Penguins co-owner.

"I understand how Dana handles his things, and I try to do the same things."

They have the basic necessities -- lockers, showers, a work table.

"We've got a variation of everything," center Joe Vitale said. "We've got something we call a stick table. A lot of it is improvisation. You figure it out as you go."

So far, the players have come up with enough tape leftover from the summer to manicure their sticks. In fact, knowing there might be a work stoppage, some stockpiled a little extra when packing supplies such as tape at the end of last season.

"Don't tell the trainers, but, yes, I did," Niskanen said. "I guess I wouldn't even know where to look to buy a roll of tape around here. If you need something, you just have to go get it yourself."

So far, the tape supply had held up.

"Hopefully, it lasts a little bit longer, but not too long," Engelland said.

Some leave their equipment at the rink during the week, but they have to clear out on weekends.

"It kind of brings you back to being a kid," Vitale said. "You bring your laundry home and wash it. You bring your equipment home and you have to find a spot in the house to air your equipment out -- especially on rainy days because you can't really put it outside. My wife's been all over me about stinky equipment here and there, but other than that it's not too bad."

Adams, the team NHLPA representative, noted that the makeshift arrangements are part of player solidarity. They also underscore the NHlL's perks.

"It definitely reminds you how spoiled you are during the season," he said. "Our staff is unbelievable in taking care of everything we need.

"There are times [now] you turn around and you need something and you can't get it. Other than that, it's not a big deal. I wouldn't say it's a huge hardship."

NOTES -- Some Kontinental Hockey League games will be shown on the online ESPN3 outlet, but, so far, none with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Metallurg Magnitorgorsk. ... Sophomore forward Tommy Olczyk, son of former Penguins coach and player Eddie Olczyk, will be Penn State's captain and senior forward George Saad of Wexford an alternate captain for the Nittany Lions' first season of Division I hockey.

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For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @pgshelly.


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