As of this moment, that is how many suspensions Matt Cooke and Steve Downie have served together this season. No, it is not a typo and there should not be a one added to it. Suggesting, prior to the regular season, that neither player would be forcefully withdrawn from a game or involved in a serious incident from October to April would be classified as a pipe dream.

Lo and behold, it is now a reality. Cooke and Downie, both of whom got their Ontario Hockey League start-up with the Windsor Spitfires, toned down their physicality and adjusted their playing styles. In contrast to some of their previous on-ice choices, they couldn’t have timed this one any better.

With the NHL looking to crack down on players for illegal infractions more than ever, Colin Campbell’s days were numbered. In June of 2011, Brendan Shanahan was officially installed as the head of player discipline and he didn’t exactly bide his time in regards to showing who’s in charge.

Hide and go seek: Matt Cooke used to run from his problems. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/ Flikr)

During his playing days, Shanahan was not shy about sticking his nose where it was uncomfortable. Why should his early reign in this new position be different at all?

Nine suspensions, worth a total of 60 games, were issued in the pre-season alone. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Kris Letang, who had no previous run-ins with the National Hockey League’s law, became the first two players to forfeit a couple of matches in the regular season.

The message was loud and clear: Shanahan was holding everyone responsible for their actions, even if they came off as more of an accident (such as the Bouchard high stick on Matt Calvert). And most importantly, a clean record to boast meant nothing for the verdict–nobody was immune to punishment.

Knowing the history of both Cooke and Downie, it’s quite stunning that neither has been featured in one of Shanahan’s video explanations.

Although Cooke received a two-game ban in 2004 for spearing Matt Johnson of the Minnesota Wild, his dossier really thickened when he donned a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. Before we get into this, we should highlight some of his unpunished infractions.

In 2008, he pretty much altered the career of Vincent Lecavalier with a questionable hit, as the power forward isn’t presently the dominant force he once was. Two knee-on-knee incidents, one with Zach Bogosian and the other with Erik Cole, occured in a two-month span of 2009.

Later that year, he made a subtle kicking motion towards the face of Chris Osgood in the Stanley Cup final. Last but definitely not least, he blindsided Marc Savard in 2010, sending the playmaker into a trying period that had him live with concussion issues, headaches and depression. The hit brought rule 48, regarding an illegal check to the head, into play.

Moving on to his suspensions in Pittsburgh, Cooke sat out two contests for hitting Scott Walker in the head and another two for a similar offense on Artem Anisimov. A deliberate hit from behind on defenseman Fedor Tyutin earned him four more games. How the Penguins commentators built up the nerve to justify Cooke’s check on Tyutin is beyond me.

Duncan Keith gave Cooke a taste of his own medicine when he took it upon himself to down the forward with a head shot of his own. Normally, there would be outcry but because it was a despised player on the receiving end, it didn’t pan out that way. When Evander Kane channeled his inner Evander Holyfield and knocked Cooke out in a fight almost two years ago, there was rejoice amongst the fans outside of Pittsburgh. Sympathy for the 33-year-old wasn’t easy to come by.

Saving the best lengthiest for last, Cooke crossed the line again by intentionally elbowing Ryan McDonagh’s head in March of 2011. The ensuing suspension, which included the final ten matches of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, gave him plenty of time to think things through.

He decided to pay attention to what he’d been doing wrong and learn how to check others in a safe manner, within the rules. With the help of head coach Dan Bylsma, Cooke spent a fair share of time in the video room to examine his hits and decide how he could alter his methods. Watching his team, helplessly, blow a 3-1 series lead and fall out to the Tampa Bay Lightning added to his motivation towards changing.

Over one year has gone by since Cooke’s last suspension, as he’s kept himself out of trouble. It doesn’t mean he’s stopped being a pest,–he still embodies that quality–but he’s avoided unnecessary altercations in the 2012 campaign. That dedication has led to a career-high in goals and just 38 penalty minutes. Remember, this was a person who surpassed triple digits in minutes for three straight years and now he’ll be lucky to reach even half of that.

Under surveillance: Alex Ovechkin keeps a close eye on Steve Downie. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/ Flikr)

Pittsburgh wasn’t the only Atlantic Division club dealing with a controversial player. Their arch rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, drafted a young Steve Downie with their first round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. While Cooke started to get on the bad side of people in the NHL, Downie celebrated his draft result by seeing a five-game suspension in the OHL. The worst part is that he attacked a teammate in practice and was kind enough to subtract three teeth from his mouth in the process.

A 2007 pre-season meeting with the Ottawa Senators alarmed people further of Downie’s danger. Launching himself (literally) at Dean McAmmond, he concussed his opponent and left him unconscious. It was a costly move, one that delayed a regular season debut for 20 matches.

On the same night that Downie scored his first goal with Philadelphia, he managed to have himself remembered for an altogether different act. Tied up with two officials and Jason Blake, he got his arm free and punched the Maple Leaf forward directly in the eye. A mark was visible on Blake’s face immediately and as Downie skated towards the penalty box, a smile came across his face. Obviously, he was cherishing his role as the villain.

A trade to Tampa Bay, which got him demoted to the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League eventually, was the scene for Downie’s next violent episode. In the middle of a face-off, he slashed a referee on the shin–pummeling your teammates does get old after a while–and erased 20 more matches from his schedule.

In 2009-2010, Downie proved that he can be more than a destructive influence. He found chemistry on a line with Steven Stamkos, who turned out to become a great friend of his, and Martin St. Louis. While his linemates were more skilled, Downie went to the net and gave them extra space to work with. For his play, the 24-year-old finished the year to a tune of 22 goals and 24 assists. An awkward situation, with Sidney Crosby of all people, was the only blemish on that season.

Everyone, from general manager Steve Yzerman to teammates and coaches, realized that Downie was an improved, talented forward. He’s learned to harbor the emotions impressively and now, his impact is being felt on the score sheets rather than elsewhere. It’s continued in Colorado, where he’s on the opposite wing of Calder Trophy candidate Gabriel Landeskog and centered by the effective Ryan O’Reilly.

Quite a period of time has passed since Cooke or Downie were involved in an incident that was widely frowned upon–more than a year for Cooke and over two for Downie, to be exact.

Avoiding suspension is one thing. But for two such players to have transformed themselves to such a degree is in itself an admirable achievement, heightened increasingly by Brendan Shanahan’s crackdown on in-game crimes.

Matt Cooke and Steve Downie won’t escape from their pasts entirely, but they are doing their best to keep similar events from transpiring in the future.

In the end, that is all anybody could request from them.

Follow Rafal Ladysz on twitter.

  1. Char says:

    Marc Savard STILL lives with concussion issues, headaches and depression.

    Matt Cooke can go to hell.

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