x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Despite rules, brute force is still going strong in the NHL

The NHL's subculture of condoned violence had a brief, uncomfortable moment under the microscope last week over a nasty collision between Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson.

Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Matt Cooke, left, says he had no intention of injuring Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, but Karlsson is now out indefinitely after one of Cooke's skates cut an achilles tendon on Karlsson.
Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Matt Cooke, left, says he had no intention of injuring Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, but Karlsson is now out indefinitely after one of Cooke's skates cut an achilles tendon on Karlsson.

The NHL's subculture of condoned violence had a brief, uncomfortable moment under the microscope this past week.

A nasty collision involving the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke and the Ottawa Senators' defender Erik Karlsson cost the 22-year-old reigning Norris Trophy winner the rest of his season. As Cooke chased Karlsson into the boards, Cooke raised his left leg, allegedly to brace himself, and his skate lacerated Karlsson's Achilles tendon.

The reaction was predictable, since reputed "bad boy" Cooke has been suspended for dangerous play four times in his 14-year career. Eugene Melnyk, the Senators owner, said Cooke should not be in the league. Bryan Murray, the Ottawa general manager, assumed it was deliberate mayhem, saying: "It's Matt Cooke. What can I say?"

Cooke denied he was out to maim, telling KDKA radio in Pittsburgh it was a "freak accident" and "totally not my intent".

The league agreed, reviewing the incident and absolving Cooke, who claims to be a reformed man since his most recent suspension in 2011. Indeed, his penalty minutes dropped from 129 in 2010/11 to an almost meek 44 in 2011/12.

Still, Cooke's game remains physical - to hit and disrupt. It is an admired part of the sport.

Every team employs "enforcers", including Ottawa, who sent Chris Neil to take vengeful runs at Cooke after the incident.

It is the NHL's strangest dichotomy: lauding its brutes while being dismayed by brutish outcomes.

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