No matter how much Matt Cooke changes his game or apologizes, some folks in the National Hockey League just aren’t going to buy it.
And that list includes Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who called out Cooke after his skate accidentally severed the tendon of Sens’ star defenceman Erik Karlsson this week and ended his season. Here’s what Melnyk said to The Ottawa Sun:
"This guy should be kicked… He doesn't belong in the league. He belongs somewhere where the goons play. Get him in the Central league. He can be a $60,000-a-year guy playing pick-up hockey there. The guy does not deserve… He's got one purpose. I remember when this happened with (Jason) Spezza. I said, 'If these are the rules, I just want to know.' We'll play with the same rules. Make sure you have one or two goons whose job is to do this either intentionally or unintentionally.
"I'm OK with it, just tell me I'm OK with it. I play by the rules. I'm just shocked an organization would do this."
Cooke and his Pittsburgh Penguin teammates are in Winnipeg for tonight's matchup with the Jets (6 p.m.; CBC/TSN1290). Not surprisingly, when the Pens wrapped up their morning skate at MTS Centre, Cooke – who wasn’t disciplined for the accident with Karlsson -- had a media throng waiting for him.
"I’m sorry Mr. Melnyk feels that way. I understand the position he’s in… it’s not easy," said Cooke. "I obviously felt bad about what happened and I just hope he has a fast recovery. I know it’s not fast, but as fast as possible."
Cooke, 34, has worked to change his game over the last couple of years from a cheap-shot artist who has been suspended five times to a dependable two-way forward. Asked if it’s been emotional to have to deal with being in the spotlight over the last couple of days, Cooke said:
"This has been different than it was in the past for me. I know where my head is and how I feel with the play and that’s what’s most important. I’ll go back to the comment I made about changing my game: I never thought (the criticism) would ever stop or end. But I’m prepared to do it for the long haul."
Sidney Crosby was also asked to weigh in on Melnyk’s comments and felt his teammate was being vilified for past transgressions and reputation.
I’m sorry Mr. Melnyk feels that way. I understand the position he’s in… it’s not easy," said Cooke. "I obviously felt bad about what happened and I just hope he has a fast recovery. I know it’s not fast, but as fast as possible. At the end of the day it was a freak, unfortunate accident. I can’t control anything else other than that. I reached out to him via text. Whether or not he responds to me I understand."
Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma also offered up his take on Melnyk’s comments after the morning skate.
"If anyone understands the injury to a good player… we’ve had a number of them in the last few years and so we understand their pain and where they’re coming from," said Bylsma.
"When you look at the play we’re talking about, it’s an unfortunate play that happens. We had one like it with Jordan Staal where a skate hits a skate and it ends up being an injury. As soon as I heard what happened to Erik I felt for the Senators and the game because it’s a great player. I agree with (Senators’ GM) Bryan Murray -- you come to the game to watch this guy play. He’s that good. I feel their disappointment and some of their comments."
Bylsma also admitted that try as he may, Cooke will not be able to convince the entire hockey world he has changed his game.
"There are people who are making comments who haven’t really seen him play in the last two years," said Bylsma. "There’s no question he’s made an adjustment, you can see it in his game and the numerous hits he’s had this year where he’s adjusted. But I don’t think people really watch that closely. Certainly you can jump on and talk about previous history, but there’s definitely been a change in Matt’s game, the way he approaches the game and the way he hits in the game."