Last week, as the Penguins' Matt Cooke crunched Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson into the boards at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center, Cooke's skate blade sliced into the left Achilles tendon of the defending Norris Trophy winner, ending his season and producing some truly awful images, from the still photo of Karlsson's face immediately after the incident to the video of Karlsson attempting to push off using his left skate, only to scream in pain and continue off the ice on just one foot.
Karlsson's injury is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons: It interrupts the career of a player who captured the Norris Trophy for best defenseman in just his third NHL season; it deprives fans in Ottawa and beyond the opportunity to watch one of the league's most exciting young players; and it forces the Senators, who are already playing without Jason Spezza, to fight for a playoff spot without another of its biggest stars. Members of the Senators organization are understandably upset with the turn their season has taken, but because of the involvement of Cooke -- who's been suspended five times in his career -- they're not necessarily chalking it up to the breaks of the game.
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said after the game that "We all know who's involved in it," referring to Cooke. But the harshest words came from Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who in an interview with TSN, said that there's no place in the league for a player like Cooke. "To have him taken out by a goon is unconscionable," said Melnyk. "Whether it was accidental, or whether it was reckless, or whether it was intentional, to me it doesn't matter. It's something that never should have happened. This player should never be playing in this league. It's a league for elite players."
There's some questionable logic in some of what Melnyk says there: It actually makes a pretty big difference whether the incident was intentional, reckless, or completely accidental. His point, I guess, is that Cooke is a dirty player and would be a dirty player regardless of what happened with Karlsson. But it matters very much whether Karlsson was injured by a goon who was acting recklessly or with intent to injure, or whether he was injured on a freak play by someone who also happens to be, in Melnyk's view, a goon. One of those things has no place in hockey; the other is an unfortunate accident.
Cooke said after the game that he wasn't out to injure Karlsson: "It was totally not my intent on the play. It was just a freak kind of accident, and I hope [Karlsson] understands that." NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan agreed: Cooke was given no supplemental discipline as a result of the incident, suggesting that not only did Shanahan believe Cooke wasn't trying to hurt Karlsson, but that he also didn't consider Cooke's actions overly reckless.
Melnyk and the rest of us can study the clip of Karlsson's injury like it's the Zapruder film, but we can't know with any certainty whether Cooke knew what he was doing. But Melnyk didn't say what he did because he broke down the incident frame by frame. He didn't attack Cooke because the video somehow proves that Cooke is, to use his phrasing, a goon. Melnyk feels the way he does because Matt Cooke has a reputation -- one that he may never fully shake. Other players in Cooke's position might be innocent until proven otherwise, but to Melnyk, Cooke isn't other players.
The thing with Cooke, though, is that he's made an effort to change the perception that he's a dirty player. He's been suspended five times in his career, the most recent of which came in March 2011, when he elbowed Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head, earning a ban for the remainder of that year's regular season, as well as the first round of the playoffs.
After that ugly elbow, however, Cooke mostly cleaned up his act: The following season, 2011-12, he took just 44 penalty minutes in 82 games -- roughly a third as many as he took in fewer games the previous year. Much was written about his transformation -- sample headline: "Cooke Proves Change Is Possible" -- and he even received a Lady Byng vote. (He got one fourth place vote, tying him eight other players, including Ottawa's Spezza. If he didn't already know it, this piece of information might now make Melnyk's head explode.) Cooke has spoken about how he no longer straddles the line between acceptably intense play and dirty play. "Wherever the line is," he said last year, "I kind of stay 100 meters away." Cooke's made a real effort to shed the label of a dirty player. And yet, now that he's involved in an incident that resulted in an injury, he's also proving how hard it is to fully change perceptions.
Melnyk might not speak for those all around hockey, but that such a prominent person in the sport -- the owner of a team -- would come out swinging at Cooke after an incident like that shows how hard it is to shake a reputation. Cooke can largely behave for a season-plus, but Melnyk labeled him a goon almost immediately -- following an incident that, as a reminder, was ultimately deemed an accident.
And let's be clear: Cooke put himself in this position with years of out-of-control behavior. He's unfairly being beaten up by Melnyk in this case, but he earned his reputation as a bad boy. And even in a sporting culture that loves a good redemption story, labels stick. It's impossible not to watch the Karlsson clip a few extra times and wonder if it was accidental, just because Cooke is involved. Even those of us who are well aware of how Cooke's behavior has changed can't help but consider whether he might have relapsed and crossed back over the line he'd made an effort to stay away from. Some of us, after all of that, can still arrive at the conclusion that Cooke isn't to blame here -- that this is a crummy situation but that it isn't Cooke's fault.
But to someone like Melnyk, Cooke isn't so much a reformed goon as much as he's a dirty player who simply hadn't been gooning it up quite as much lately. Melnyk was even asked by TSN about whether Cooke might be a changed man. "I don't buy any of that garbage," said the Sens owner. "Five times? No, we're number six? How about seven and eight? At what point do you say, 'you know what? Maybe he's not changed.' You do this enough times, don't try to convince me or anybody else. People are way too intelligent."
As far as Melnyk is concerned, once a goon, always a goon.
Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com.