TORONTO - The Pittsburgh Penguins think the NHL finally got the message right. It didn't matter that one of their own players received it.
NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell handed down his stiffest suspension of the season Monday, banning Penguins agitator Matt Cooke for the rest of the regular season and first round of the playoffs after he elbowed Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh in the head.
Pittsburgh has 10 games remaining in the regular season so the suspension will be a minimum of 14 games. Cooke will forfeit US$219,512.20 in salary.
The Penguins organization has been outspoken about the need to clean up the sport and took the unprecedented step of applauding a decision against one of their own players.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said in a statement. "Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen.
"Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
It's the fifth time Cooke has been suspended during his NHL career and the fourth since he joined the Penguins as a free agent in 2008. He was banned four games last month for hitting Blue Jackets defenceman Fedor Tyutin from behind.
The latest incident happened Sunday afternoon when Cooke, sticking out an elbow, levelled McDonagh along the boards and received a five-minute major for elbowing. The Rangers player finished the game but missed practice Monday.
Campbell met with Cooke at the league office in Toronto before making his ruling.
"Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position," Campbell said in a release. "This isn't the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behaviour on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response."
Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux made headlines last month when he released a scathing statement questioning the direction of the league following a fight-filled game on Long Island.
Even though Campbell fined the Islanders $100,000 and suspended two of their players for a total of 13 games, Lemieux didn't think he came down hard enough.
"The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message ... (and) it failed," said Lemieux.
In fact, the Hockey Hall of Famer went so far as to write a letter to commissioner Gary Bettman earlier this month proposing a new system for supplemental discipline where an organization is fined every time a player is suspended.
Under the terms he proposed in the letter, the Penguins would have been fined as much as $2 million for Cooke's latest actions—the maximum $1 million for a ban longer than 15 games, which would be doubled because he's already been suspended once this season.
Bettman intends to hold a discussion about making teams more accountable at the league's next board of governors meeting in June. A system will likely be in place for next season.
Cooke is a 12-year NHL veteran who has a well-earned reputation as a pest. He's best known for the devastating hit on Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard last March.
Cooke was not suspended for that play, but the incident was the primary driving force behind the creation of Rule 48, which banned blindside hits to the head.
Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg told reporters on Monday morning that Cooke should be banned for the year and Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney—a former Penguins teammate—joined the chorus of applause on Twitter after the discipline was announced.
"Nice to see the NHL come through with that suspension," Whitney wrote. "Enough is enough with that guy."
Interestingly, Cooke is very popular with his own teammates and has demonstrated that he can do more than just stir up trouble. He was averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time per game this season and coach Dan Bylsma used him as one of his main penalty killers.
In 67 games, Cooke had 30 points (12-18) and 129 penalty minutes. He's under contract to the Penguins for two more years at a cap hit of $1.8 million.
The Penguins plan to give Cooke another opportunity once the suspension ends.
"We signed him because he's a good hockey player," Shero told reporters at Joe Louis Arena, before Pittsburgh beat the Red Wings 5-4 in the shootout on Monday night. "Right in this building we won the Stanley Cup (in 2009). He played a big role in that.
"That's why I want him to be part of this team."