It’s been over a week since Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson’s season was ended when the left skate of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke lacerated Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon.
In the immediate aftermath, I stated Karlsson’s injury was accidental and there was no obvious malicious intent on Cooke’s part to injure the Senators star. Media and fan consensus arrived at a similar conclusion.
Looking at the replays, it was apparent Cooke never meant to injure the Senators star. He was simply trying to check Karlsson, and as the pair jostled along the boards, the left skate of the off-balance Cooke accidentally sliced down into Karlsson’s lower left leg.
Unfortunately, that’s not how Senators GM Bryan Murray, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and a few NHL pundits saw it.
Murray was furious following that game, suggesting Cooke’s action was a deliberate attempt to injure Karlsson. A few days later, a seething Melnyk declared there was no place for players like Cooke in today’s NHL.
Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun declared Cooke deserved suspension because of the reckless manner in which he checked Karlsson.
Brennan acknowledged nobody knows if Cooke was acting intentionally, but nevertheless felt the Penguins winger was “criminally careless”. Brennan also believed Cooke didn’t just hurt Karlsson and the Senators, but robbed the league of a great star for the rest of the season.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post was another scribe who felt Cooke got away with recklessness.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the NHL. Pro hockey is a high-speed, physical game, and sometimes players – including the very best – get hurt, usually by accident.
Had it been any other player than Cooke – who has a well-deserved reputation for deliberately attempting to injure opponents – no one would’ve suggested the incident was anything other than accidental.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan didn’t buy into the guilt by reputation meme, and made the correct judgement that the injury to Karlsson was accidental.
I’ve certainly been no fan of Matt Cooke over most of his career. I was furious he received no supplemental discipline for essentially ending Marc Savard’s career with a vicious blindside elbow, and called for his permanent suspension after he tried a similar stunt a year later against NY Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
But it was obvious the injury was accidental. If the NHL were to suspend Cooke for recklessness, most of its players would also have to be punished for similar reckess use of their skates, even if they didn’t injure their opponents.
The game is played on ice by players wearing skates with razor-sharp blades. Even the best skaters can get knocked off balance jostling with a rival player. Penalizing them for it, even if they accidentally injure an opponent as a result, is ridiculous.
It should also be remembered Cooke isn’t the dirty player he used to be.
Since receiving a seventeen-game suspension for attempting to injure McDonagh, Cooke acknowledged he had to change his ways or risk a permanent suspension from the NHL. After three-straight seasons with 100-plus PIMs, Cooke last season had only 44 PIMs, earning praise for cleaning up his game.
One season, however, doesn’t undo the reputation he earned as the league’s dirtiest player. When Cooke’s skate sliced Eriksson’s tendon, the automatic assumption by some observers was this leopard didn’t really change his spots, and had somehow devised a new – though very awkward – way of injuring a player and getting away with it.
I understand why Melnyk, Murray and Senators fans were upset. Karlsson is a superstar, the defending Norris Trophy winner, and arguably the Senators best player. Losing him after Jason Spezza was sidelined by back surgery is a serious blow to the Senators playoff hopes.
Still, just because Cooke once had a reputation as a dirty player is no reason to suspend him for accidentally injuring a player on what would’ve otherwise been a harmless play.