In the National Hockey League, enforcers are players who are paid to drop their gloves, fight, keep order, and intimidate the opposition.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have had several enforcers in their 45-year history, but Matt Cooke chuckled when asked if he's become one of them.
"I'm not big enough to be an enforcer,'' said the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Penguins' left wing, who was on hand Monday night at Blair County Ballpark to shoot a ceremonial puck toward home plate prior to the Altoona Curve's series opener with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. "I just do what I can out there, and I don't try to go beyond that.''
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
The Penguins’ Matt Cooke shoots a puck toward home Monday night.
Cooke, 32, has doled out a number of controversial bodychecks over the past several seasons that have put him at the center of a firestorm of controversy and provoked the ire of opposing teams, league president Gary Bettman, and even the Penguins' front office.
Last March, Cooke was suspended by the league for the final 10 games of the regular season as well as the first round of the playoffs - in which the Penguins were ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning - because of his elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
That incident occurred just a month after Cooke was leveled with a four-game suspension by the league for a backside hit on Columbus Blue Jackets' defenseman Fedor Tyutin.
In March 2010, Cooke delivered a blow to the head of Boston Bruins' forward Marc Savard that left Savard with a concussion that sidelined him for almost two months. Cooke wasn't suspended by the league because of that check, but it prompted the NHL to implement a new sanction titled Rule 48, aimed at prohibiting hits to the head.
During the 2007-08 season, as a member of the Washington Capitals, Cooke leveled talented Tampa Bay forward Vincent Lecavalier with a check that tore the labrum in Lecavalier's shoulder.
Cooke's list of on-ice transgressions may read like the average felon's rap sheet, but at the end of last season, Cooke promised the Penguins and their president, former Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux, that he would change his ways.
"It's a mentality, it's how I'm going to approach the game,'' Cooke said of his plan to clean up his act. "And the team has worked hard in supporting me to accomplish these minor tweaks in my game.''
Cooke told the media after the hit on McDonagh that "I don't want to hurt anybody. That's not my intention. I know I can be better.''
Indeed, Cooke is a compassionate humanitarian off the ice. Cooke and his wife Michelle - who now live in Pittsburgh with their three children - run a charity known as The Cooke Family Foundation of Hope that operates in the Vancouver area and has raised thousands of dollars to help families and individuals facing a wide variety of life crises.
Moreover, Cooke has first-hand knowledge of the damage that the wrong types of hockey checks can inflict on a player. His own teammate, superstar center Sydney Crosby, missed the entire second half of last season with a concussion after taking such a hit from the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin on New Year's Day.
Crosby's true status for the upcoming season is still unknown by many, including Cooke.
"The end of last season was the last time I talked to him,'' Cooke said of Crosby. "I don't know how he's doing, and I'd rather not elaborate until I have specific details on his condition.''
Cooke's 7-year-old son, Jackson, threw out one of the first pitches Monday night in front of a crowd that featured more than a few Penguins' fans.
Josh Caldwell, 28, of Altoona, was wearing a Penguins' T-shirt and said that he and his wife, Erica, are avid fans of the team.
"She grew up in Johnstown, where hockey is king, so she's been a fan her whole life,'' Caldwell said. ''I've become a fan of the Penguins the last couple years, and we watch the games together on TV. [Appearances like Cooke's] give the community something to look forward to, whether it's a Penguin, Steeler or Pirate player visiting.''
Cooke - who has scored 126 goals in his 13 NHL seasons, nine of which were with the Vancouver Canucks - is hoping the Penguins can regain their form of 2009, when they won the Stanley Cup.
"That was the thrill of my life,'' he said. "We were in 10th place in the league standings that January, and to come together game-by-game like we did that year was awesome.''