A few thousand Wild fans get the first look at new-look Matt Cooke
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - There were myriad intense games played between Zach Parise's New Jersey Devils and Matt Cooke's Pittsburgh Penguins over the past five years or so, before that pair had lockers about three stalls apart in the Minnesota Wild dressing room.
And despite the fact that those two teammates are getting to know each other and prepping for a long season where they'll no doubt rely on each other often, Parise doesn't mince words when asked why he and the Devils hated playing against Cooke and the Penguins.
"He was pretty dirty," Parise said. "He got under your skin, and he's got that ability to take your focus off the game and off scoring goals, and he puts your focus on him. That's a good trait to have, and that's a good player for us to have."
A quick check of Cooke's online bio shows nearly as many NHL suspensions for dirty and dangerous plays as trips to the playoffs. It also shows a Stanley Cup ring that Cooke won with the Penguins (who had an assistant coach named Mike Yeo back then) in 2009. Still, over the summer when the Wild inked Cooke to a free agent pact, the reaction of some fans was akin to announcing that a tried and true goon like Ulf Samuelsson, or Todd Bertuzzi or Chris Simon (again) would be wearing green and red.
"I understand their reaction. I don't blame them for it, and they're entitled to it," said Cooke on Sunday. "But I'm a different player now, and somehow, some way, with this being the State of Hockey, I believe if for some reason I was on this side doing the same things, they'd be loving me. So I ask for patience, and hopefully after three or four shifts their opinions will change."
Cooke may have begun changing the opinions of at least a few of the 3,000 or so in attendance Sunday as the Wild held a free intersquad scrimmage at their home rink. His Team Green fell 3-2 to Team White (which featured the Wild's top line of Parise, captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville), but Cooke had a hand in both of his team's goals, and began to show that he can do as much with his skates and stick as he can with his shoulders and elbows.
His team's first goal came when Cooke, darting up the far side of the rink, made a spinning behind-the-back pass to linemate Torrey Mitchell for a tap-in goal. In the third period Cooke did things himself, snapping a bad angle shot past the goalie for, unofficially, his first goal in a Wild sweater. Despite Cooke's hard-nosed reputation, the offense is exactly what Yeo - now the Wild's third-year head coach - knew they were getting.
"We've said this since we signed him, but there's a reason why he's here. He's more than what is advertised or what the perception might be for him," Yeo said. "He's a guy that penalty killing and the physical part of his game, those are all part of his identity, but he's got speed, the ability to make plays and the ability to help other guys get to their game."
On a line with Mitchell and Kyle Brodziak, Cooke said he expects that trio will see a lot of their opponents' top lines, and has bought into Yeo's preseason preaching about puck possession, saying the best way to shut down a foe is to play in the offensive zone. His offensive zone play on Sunday may have even surprised a few Wild players as well.
"My teammates are all shocked, and I said, 'Did you think you were getting a bum?'" Cooke joked. "I don't know what they think."
Pominville, who saw plenty of Cooke while playing in Buffalo, recalled that the pair even dropped the gloves once in Pominville's only NHL fight.
"I just hung on for my life," Pominville joked.
Cooke was suspended twice in the final months of the 2010-11 season, and missed the first round of the playoffs. With the NHL determined to crack down on hits to the head, and not shy about making an example of a repeat offender, Cooke knew his game had to change. Before judging him on his past, he said wants Minnesota fans to watch him now and judge for themselves what he's become.
"I think he's moved on from that and done a tremendous job of adjusting his game," said Pominville. "That's why he's had so much success in Pittsburgh, and I'm sure it will be the same here. He put that all behind him and has adjusted well to the new rules."
Knowing TV coverage is spotty in the preseason, Cooke asked that fans use their eyes, and their ears, to get to know him starting Tuesday when the Wild face Columbus in the exhibition opener.
"Hopefully if they're listening on the radio and they're hearing my name doing good things, not doing anything that I shouldn't, that's what's important," Cooke said.