Matt Cooke, once one of the NHL’s most-hated players, is charting a new path

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland — The morning fog grows so thick outside Mary Brown’s Centre that South Side Hills, an imposing rock outcropping standing between St. John’s and the rough waters of the north Atlantic Ocean, isn’t visible a few hundred meters away.

Inside the empty arena, the only voice is not loud but still penetrating.

A coach is standing in the middle of a group of professional hockey players. He turns his head side-to-side, looking for recognition, any sign of life.

“Whatever the f— is up,” he barks at players kneeling before him, “make sure you’re ready to go tonight.” After that, he turns and leaves the morning skate hours before a game.

The coach is Matt Cooke. He is wearing a beige ball cap and he’s added a few pounds from his own playing days. But he hasn’t lost any of the energy of his 16-season NHL career. He’s the same Matt Cooke who would rise to the top of the list of most reviled NHL players of the past two decades.

His unprovoked open-ice shoulder check on Marc Savard in March 2010 is still one of the most universally condemned hits in modern NHL history. It left the Boston Bruins forward with a concussion, contributed to the end of his career and led to a change in the NHL rules meant to deter blindside hits.

A year later, Cooke was suspended for 17 games for a punishing elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

Cooke also lacerated Erik Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon when his skate came down on the NHL All-Star’s left leg during a board battle. The questions about whether Cooke was a hard-nosed player gave way to questions about whether he was a malicious one.

Then-Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk echoed many in the hockey world when he labeled Cooke a “goon” who “should never be playing in this league.”

Cooke’s final suspension was seven games for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in the 2014 playoffs.

Many believed he was incapable of changing. When his career ended a year later, any player looking to skate through the middle of the ice untouched breathed a sigh of relief.

But now he’s a rookie head coach of the Newfoundland Growlers, the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A leader of young men. The shaper of young hockey minds.

For those who remember Matt Cooke on the ice, it might be a chilling thought.

“Matt Cooke the person has always been different from Matt Cooke the player,” he says.

The first hint of Cooke’s future came when he was just a 5-foot-1 13-year-old playing minor hockey for the Quinte Red Devils, in Belleville, Ont. Physical play was ingrained in his game in the early 1990s, but he was never taught what that should look like.

“My first game, I’m scared. I’m flying on my knees trying to cannonball guys because I’m scared,” Cooke says. “I was taught to give the biggest hit possible. But I never intentionally tried to hurt anybody, ever.”

Just like many of the players he now coaches, Cooke was overlooked. He was not picked in the 1996 NHL Draft.

But he was tenacious. He refused to accept his fate. As an undrafted 18-year-old, he attended Toronto Maple Leafs training camp on a professional tryout and earned a contract. He impressed the Leafs coaching staff with his determined style of play and surprisingly strong set of hands.

An unfortunate clerical error meant his three-year contract offer with the Leafs wasn’t filed to the league office in time, forcing him to return to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. Armed with confidence from his tryout success, Cooke showed a new side to his game. After scoring just eight goals during his draft year, he led his Spitfires team with 45 goals.

“I was always undersized, not fast enough, not skilled enough,” Cooke says proudly. “And I beat the odds.”

At the 1997 draft, he wasn’t forgotten. The Vancouver Canucks picked him in the sixth round, 144th. He had a nine-season stint with the Canucks before moving to the Penguins, developing into not just a reliable goal scorer but a gregarious teammate. Coaches could not escape special teams meetings without being peppered with questions from Cooke.

“He was not a guy who was quiet in the room,” Cooke’s former teammate Tyler Kennedy says.

But even with his ability to find the back of the net, Cooke made his name turning the middle of the ice into a hazardous place for the opposition.

That’s when the harmful hits piled up.

In the aftermath of his headshot on Savard, as the hate toward him swelled, he realized he needed to change.

Kennedy noticed his once-chatty teammate growing reticent. “When you hurt someone, no matter who you are, you think about it,” Kennedy says.

It led Cooke to then-Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma. After the 2010-11 season, Bylsma took Cooke under his wing for repeated one-on-one video and on-ice sessions.

“It was a point of reflection about his career, who he was as a player and how he was perceived,” Bylsma says. “He had a desire to change that.”

Cooke says if he could, one thing he’d change is that March 7, 2010, hit on Savard.

“At the time, to survive in the game, I felt like Matt Cooke the player was the guy that made the middle of the ice harder for people to get to,” he says.

“Now there’s a specific rule in place that I would have been suspended for a lot of games for that hit. But at the time, legally within the game, I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get a penalty and I wasn’t suspended. I hate the fact that Marc was hurt.”

When Savard returned to the ice, he sustained another concussion in a hit from Matt Hunwick on Jan. 23, 2011, ending his career.

Cooke has never spoken to Savard. He said he tried to get in touch for a month after the hit. “You can only get rejected so many times,” Cooke says softly.

Savard, now an assistant coach for the Calgary Flames, did not reply to a text message seeking comment.

For Cooke, it’s a part of his past.

“I haven’t thought about it in a long time,” he says. “Back then, I wanted to apologize. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t personal. It could have been Milan Lucic who crossed the middle. The play would have been the same.”

When his playing career ended after the 2014-15 season, Cooke ran a hockey academy in Minnesota and coached at two high schools. If Cooke’s players expected him to teach them how to deliver thunderous checks, they were disappointed.

“The reality is different from the perception (of Cooke),” Bylsma says.

Instead, he stressed how to compete relentlessly without hunting for heads.

Cooke would throw his old gear on and mingle with players on the ice. They might have complained he talked too much. But Cooke was undeterred. “Even though you don’t see it with your eyes, I want you to hear it with your ears, so you can be successful,’” Cooke would tell them.

His NHL experiences were only important if they were shared.

“Most people don’t know, but through the last six or seven years, Matt has been doing a lot of work with his coaching,” Bylsma says.

He also has stayed busy doing other things. Cooke paid for suites for underprivileged children to watch NHL games in multiple stops during his career. He traveled to war-torn Haiti to donate time and money to charities and help build orphanages. But none of that got him any closer to a return to the league. When he applied for dozens of professional coaching vacancies across North America, he felt like his legacy followed him.

“Not even a discussion with some teams,” Cooke says.

On a whim, he applied for the Toronto Marlies head coaching vacancy in the AHL this offseason. He shrugged when he learned the organization went with the uber-experienced John Gruden, fresh off an assistant coaching stop with the Bruins. But he was encouraged when he received a phone call from Marlies GM Ryan Hardy, who wondered if Cooke would be interested in the Growlers’ vacancy.

“We all had some sort of preconceived notion of how (Cooke) might be as a coach based on how he was as a player,” Hardy says. “We found him to be a really intelligent guy who had a passion for teaching. He was able to reflect on his experience as a player.”

The shoreline of St. John’s, Newfoundland. (Jeff Parsons / Special to The Athletic)

Cooke had never been to Newfoundland when he and his wife traveled east to begin his second act.

“We’ve always had resistance to live in the moment,” Cooke says. “In doing this, the two of us made the decision to be present more. I’ve put a lot of boots in the ground to earn respect.”

Cooke understands the ebbs and flows of a season in a place like Newfoundland can suck players of their mojo. The inexperienced professionals are mostly fresh out of college or junior hockey.

But the Leafs take the Growlers seriously. Leafs regular Bobby McMann, for example, developed in Newfoundland in 2021.

“There are guys on this team who will play in the NHL,” Cooke says. “It may take them three years, but they’ll play.”

The organization is trusting Cooke, 45, to teach players how to become professionals.

And he is learning how to do just that.

When Cooke has to halt a special-teams drill to tell his players to protect the middle of the ice, he is ultimately sniffing out a lack of effort. He believes his team is “going through the motions.”

“This is your practice for tonight’s game,” he warns them. “Don’t do it half-assed.”

That attitude and approach is what drove Cooke as a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“(Cooke) earned my respect because he was always honest with his decisions,” Kennedy says. “Everyone he played with had his respect. He was the definition of a guy who everyone hated to play against but loved to play with.”

Matt Cooke is working to connect with his players, on the ice and off of it. (Jeff Parsons / Special to The Athletic)

Cooke is over an hour late for lunch when he enters a dark restaurant, shaking his head with embarrassment. He is still learning the realities of coaching two steps below the NHL.

Like how after a 3 p.m. game on a Sunday outside of Montreal, commercial flight delays mean his team can’t fly out until 9:30 p.m. Monday, arriving home at 2:30 a.m.

A practice on Tuesday, despite three games on the horizon? No chance.

Or how — an hour earlier — Cooke had one foot out of the arena when he had to turn around. The Growlers’ young Russian goalie Vyacheslav Peksa was called up to the AHL for the first time.

Cooke had to coordinate with the arena staff and ensure doors wouldn’t be locked so Peksa, 21, could return to collect his gear. Cooke answered Peksa’s questions and reminded him to bring a suit, a tie and enough clothes for what could be a multi-week trip.

Oh, and here’s the time you probably need to wake up and be out the door to catch the 5 a.m. flight.

“They don’t know,” Cooke says. “I need to make sure that as he’s leaving here we have at least somewhat prepared him.”

To return to hockey’s biggest stage, he wants Matt Cooke the communicator to replace the image of Matt Cooke ingrained in the hockey world.

“Communicating is one thing I feel I overdo at times,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

His office door is open. He extends his arms to two plush off-white couches for discussions. During practice, Cooke buzzes around, chattering and smiling.

“It’s my job to make sure (players) understand little nuances I’ve learned throughout my playing career,” Cooke says. “It may not be that a player can’t master those nuances. They might not even know they exist.”

Cooke hopes to follow two of his former assistant coaches, Tony Granato with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Darby Hendrickson with the Minnesota Wild. They backed him while also delivering important direction from coaching and management. Lines were never crossed and trust was never broken.

“I view myself as that guy,” Cooke says. “I feel like I’d be an awesome assistant coach in the NHL.”

Ironically, Cooke’s most meaningful impact could be if his players don’t follow his lead.

Earlier this season, 2018 second-round NHL Draft pick Serron Noel threw a hit that looked like a Matt Cooke special. Noel skated from behind into the back of Trois-Rivières Lions forward Anthony Beauregard. The boards shook violently from the force of it.

Noel vehemently protested his two-game suspension to Cooke, who listened patiently. “But it’s the right call,” Cooke told him. “You have the ability to limit the risk (to other players) and still be physical.”

Cooke placed an arm around the player as they slowly reviewed clips of Noel’s physical approach. Cooke instructed. Noel listened. Different skate positioning and improved movement will lead to better results. The goal: Apply physicality without malice.

“If a guy needs direction on how to rein in physicality, then it’s my responsibility to make sure he gets that support,” Cooke says. “Because that may be the only thing holding him back.”

Matt Cooke is hopeful his work in Newfoundland creates a pathway back to the NHL. (Jeff Parsons / Special to The Athletic)

The 2,693 raucous fans at Mary Brown’s Centre who welcome the Growlers are a fraction of the number of fans Cooke used to play in front of. But in this cheerful coastal town, the Growlers are beloved.

“Our fans put up with us playing horribly the last time we were here,” Cooke tells players before puck drop on a Thursday night against the Worcester Railers. Veterans nod to his messages about responsibility. He stresses that without the fans in the small town, his players would not have a job.

Fans bark at referees, players and Cooke, and $5 beers disappear when the “Chug Cam” flashes onto a video screen above the sheet of ice.

The fans’ anger at the team is justified. The Growlers were not ready to go and trailed 2-0 after the first period.

Often, that kind of performance would lead an NHL coach to avoid the dressing room, leaving players to sort out their failures. Cooke contemplates that approach.

But he reminds himself that most of these players have rarely faced off against veterans clawing for paychecks to feed their families. So Cooke wonders aloud if his players are prepared to be professionals.

“The worst part?” Cooke says to his team. “This should bother you.”

His younger players keep their eyes glued to the floor.

“Unless you put your pride on the line,” Cooke says, “the result will be the same.”

The message lands: The Growlers storm back to tie the score before they give up a late goal and lose 5-4. The loss is a blow for a team on the ECHL playoff bubble.

Cooke knows he needs their ears at a more private moment soon enough.

“That feeling when you’re lacing your skates should be, ‘I can’t wait to go out there and compete,’” he says of his team. “Some of them have it. Some of them, it has to be at a whole other level.”

Well past midnight, Cooke remains in his office delivering updates to the Leafs organization. His voice grows hoarse as the hours pile up. He contemplates sleeping on the couch in his office.

“Engage. Be present,” he tells himself as his eyes grow heavy. “When they come in in the morning, I can be the first person they see. I need to get to know where they’re at and get to know them personally.”

And so as the final revelers leave nearby pubs, Cooke remains in his office, thinking about how he can help each player advance on their hockey journey.

Cooke wants them to craft stories they’re proud of. Maybe when they do, his own story will change.

“There comes a point in time,” he says, “when people know you’re in this realm for the right reasons.”

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Present-day Matt Cooke images, Jeff Parsons / Special to The Athletic; with Penguins, Gregory Shamus / NHLI via Getty Images)

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