For nearly two decades, the on-ice pugilist affectionately known as ‘The Cookie Monster’ was arguably the most polarizing player suiting up in the NHL.
That affection was shown only by fans of the club for whom Matt Cooke played, of course — the lone group who could enjoy his antics without fear of him knocking their favourite players out of the game. For the first nine years of Cooke’s career, that was the Vancouver Canucks faithful, who saw the Belleville, Ont., native post 203 points and 625 penalty minutes through 566 games for the British Columbian squad — along with one particularly memorable bit of post-season heroism.
Now retired, Cooke joined Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup Friday to reflect on his time in Vancouver and the direction his former club is headed. Of particular note was the fact that one key member of the team’s young core, defender Troy Stecher, is currently headed for arbitration — not an ideal situation, according to Cooke.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think either side wants to go to arbitration,” Cooke told Sportsnet 650’s James Cybulski and Perry Solkowski. “A player wants to go and get his worth, but he doesn’t want to go to arbitration because the team just basically degrades him.
“And then how are you supposed to go and play for that team when you basically hear their honest opinion of you?”
Though Cooke never endured the arbitration process during his time with the Canucks, he’s seen plenty of friends and teammates deal with the awkward fallout from going head-to-head with team management.
“Erik Haula recently, with Minnesota,” Cooke recalled when asked if he’s seen any such cases. “After the hearing, he basically sees the assistant GM, and the assistant GM says ‘That’s not how we truly feel. We’re just trying to keep your number down.’ It’s not a fun process, especially for a player.”
The veteran winger also reflected on the fortunate circumstances that enabled his path to the big leagues, one that he knows hinged just as much on chance as it did on his own skill — and one that very nearly saw the feisty forward wind up in Toronto rather than Vancouver.
“I played with guys that were maybe more talented or better than I was, but some of that has to do with opportunity as well,” Cooke said. “I was fortunate that back when I was not drafted and signed a contract with Toronto, that it didn’t get sent to the League in time. And I was drafted to Vancouver where they hadn’t made the playoffs since ’94, and were looking to create some change, and there was an opening for me.”
However, though Cooke avoided arbitration-related issues, his own front-office hardships came in 2009, when he was traded from Vancouver to the Washington Capitals.
“I thought I was going to stay my whole career in Vancouver,” Cooke said. “I loved Stan Smyl and hoped to be like him, a guy that stayed there and played for one team his entire career. When I didn’t, it was hard. But, it’s a business.”
Listen to Cooke’s full interview with Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup, embedded above, to hear more about his time in Vancouver and his thoughts on the current roster’s potential.