In This Corner (Column): Pens’ Cooke finds new way to play

Matt Cooke was once a player with no boundaries. He didn’t appear to be afraid of the NHL’s disciplinary rules and didn’t appear to care about the safety of the players around him.

For years, Cooke has been perceived as the ultimate goon of the NHL. Since entering the league with the Vancouver Canucks in 1998, Cooke has accumulated 1,008 penalty minutes.

However, only 110 of those penalty minutes came from the 22 career NHL fights he’s had. Cooke’s not a fighter, but got down and dirty with his penalties.

Like another much-hated agitator in the league, Sean Avery, Cooke has his own rule.

When the league was “unable” to suspend him after a dangerous hit to the head of Boston’s Marc Savard, which sidelined Savard for two months, the league initiated a new headshot rule.

The new rule was meant to eliminate all dangerous hits to the head of opposing players, intending to limit the number of concussions.

In 13 seasons, in addition to getting his own rule, Cooke has received four suspensions. Two in the 2008-09 season, both two-game suspensions, and two in the 2010-11 season.

But it was the last suspension that was the strongest. After placing an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, the league took a stand and decided that it had had enough of Cooke’s dirty play.

Cooke was suspended for the final 10 games of the season and the only seven games the Pittsburgh Penguins played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But this season, Cooke is a different man.

In 52 games, Cooke has only earned 20 penalty minutes. That’s 109 less than his penalty minutes in 67 games last season.

In fact, of those 20 minutes, he’s had two interference penalties, one holding, slashing, hooking, tripping, diving, boarding and a roughing, after getting in a scrum with Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf on Jan. 31.

This drop in the number of penalties and the nature of those penalties is a sign that Cooke has changed, in both play and behavior on the ice.

Additionally, he’s received no more than four penalty minutes in one game up to this point in the season. At this point last season, Cooke had six games with more than four penalty minutes, including two games in which he logged 12 minutes of penalty time.

Cooke is also on track to have the same number, or more, goals than last year. The only stat that’s taken the biggest blow this season is his plus-minus rating. This season he has a minus-1, compared to last season’s plus-14.

After all the apologies players make after being suspended, it’s hard to tell whether they’re sincere or just saying words to appease the league.

But Cooke’s rehabilitation proves that the NHL cracking down is working.

Sometimes it takes one player to be the example. The NHL has proved that under the severest of circumstances, players can change.

However, with the new Matt Cooke comes another question: Why have goons?

Yes, it’s always nice to have players to stand up for potentially dirty or dangerous hits to their teammates, but is the Matt Cooke, pure goon, type going out of style?

The league is slowly making the switch to being more skill-based than fight-based. While the idea of removing fighting from the game entirely is a hot topic, it’s impossible to ignore the slight switch from fighting to fancy plays.

And Cooke is only the beginning. Other teams are starting to take a stand against rough, dangerous styles of play, even when it concerns their own players.

The New York Rangers, specifically, have grown tired of Avery’s antics and have sent him down to the American Hockey League to play for their affiliate team, the Connecticut Whale.

Actions speak louder than words, and Cooke’s actions this season prove that there is hope for a safer league.

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