The easiest call the National Hockey League’s supplemental discipline office ever made was to suspend Matt Cooke.
There was no defence. Not even his own Pittsburgh Penguin teammates or coach or general manager or owner stood up to attest to his sterling character, or to plead for clemency.
Cooke was, for purposes of Monday’s hearing, the classic fall guy, with a rap sheet as long as his arm and a crime committed in broad daylight — on NBC against the New York Rangers, no less, in case there was some question of doing it subtly — a crime so flagrant that suspending him for 10 games plus the first round of playoffs was a guaranteed winner in the eyes of the public.
It was also, because of co-owner Mario Lemieux’s previous public stand on gratuitous violence, and Penguin GM Ray Shero’s stated wish for a blanket ban on head blows, certain not to be challenged by his team.
And brother, it wasn’t.
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game,” Shero said in a statement. “Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”
Still, easy or not, considering the number of apparently open-and-shut cases on which Colin Campbell’s office has somehow found excuses to look the other way in the past, it was worth circling the date on the calendar, marking it for posterity as the day the NHL began to acknowledge the evil that cheap-shot artists do.
To think that by his reckless disregard for the brains, livelihoods and families of his many victims, a serial thug like Matt Cooke might actually have changed the game of hockey forever is almost too much to process.
To think that by endorsing the severity of the penalty, Shero has struck a blow for selflessness and the good of the game — rather than complaining about the injustice of it all, as managers are wont to do — is so unexpectedly uplifting, you want to believe it may start a trend.
Of course, that could be, probably is, wishful thinking.
Cooke’s fly-by elbow to the head of the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh on Sunday afternoon was unremarkable by comparison to similar hits seen all season, and every season — so in order to make an example of the forward, the NHL had to decide, with its eyes wide open, to set a whole new precedent for punishment of repeat offenders on head blows, even those without dire consequences to the victim.
And you have to understand how difficult a step that was for a league that has been going down the wrong path for years, and with each successive turn has plunged deeper and deeper into the maze.
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game.” - Penguin GM Ray Shero
Precedent, to me, began with an unpunished series of concussions inflicted by the legitimately great New Jersey defenceman Scott Stevens — the most memorable of them essentially spelling the end of Eric Lindros — each hit perfectly fine within the letter of the NHL’s law of the day, but no less cynical for all that.
Later, when Stevens was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame — and he’d have made it on merit, if he’d never scrambled a single brain — it seemed the die was cast for all time.
How could he be in, if the signature moments that got him there were later to be declared illegal and viewed, through history’s long lens, as barbaric examples of dark-ages thinking by a league not yet come to grips with the damage it was tacitly endorsing?
Hamstrung by judgments that always erred on the side of the perpetrator, frightened that the game might lose some essential thread of its violent underpinning if a blanket ban on head blows were to be enacted, the NHL has for years sprinted from brush fire to brush fire, praying for rain, waiting for the outcry to die down, knowing that it would.
This time, it didn’t. This time, the public yelled, and kept on yelling.
Was it the fact that Cooke’s effectively career-ending hit on Marc Savard last year went unpenalized?
Was it Mike Richards on David Booth, Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty?
Was it Sidney Crosby missing perhaps three months or more from a head blow deemed accidental?
Did the sponsors and politicians rattling their swords have an effect in the end, even as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman scoffed at them?
Did the weakness of Campbell’s office in dealing with the first few head-shot incidents coming out of the GMs’ meetings last week in Florida inspire a reading of the riot act at some higher level than the senior vice president of hockey ops?
Or was it just such a no-brainer, such a perfect storm of indefensibility and culprit and team leadership, that Campbell had no fear of bringing the hammer down?
Is the madness over, at last? Have clearer heads prevailed? Or was this a one-off?
There’s not a lot of Matt Cookes out there, and the average player — and his bosses — are quite capable of not looking in the mirror and wondering if there’s something amiss in their own backyards.
So good on Colin Campbell.
But the next head shot, and the NHL’s call on it, will tell the real story of how far the needle has moved.