Your reputation is going to follow you forever, so you'd better make sure it's a good one.
Before Wednesday night, Matt Cooke appeared in 13 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season and was pretty invisible in just about all of them. It wasn't that he was necessarily playing poorly; he just wasn't noticeable. He wasn't standing out from the pack in a positive or negative way.
He was just kind of there.
That all changed during the Penguins' 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, when he became the center of everything. He not only played what was by far his best game of the season and made a noticeable impact on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but he was also involved in the play that led to the Senators losing their best player. Erik Karlsson had his Achilles sliced by Cooke's skate blade during a puck battle along the boards.
Cooke's reputation more than precedes him. He has done some pretty brutal things on the ice throughout his career and has earned his fair share of suspensions and hate from opposing fans and players. When he was suspended for 10 regular-season games and the entire first round of the 2011 playoffs for a hit to the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, Cooke vowed to change his game and the way he plays. He was going to clean up his act. To his credit, he did just that during the 2011-12 season.
He was still a productive player and a strong penalty killer. But he not only eliminated the borderline plays and cheap shots that had filled his career to that point, he stayed out of the penalty box almost entirely and tallied just 44 penalty minutes last season. In the previous three seasons, he averaged more than 100. Even with Brendan Shanahan suspending players every week, Cooke didn't receive a ban all season.
His turnaround earned him praise, and he was used as an example of how players can change the way they play and clean up their act (Raffi Torres was one player who particularly wanted to duplicate Cooke's transformation).
But as we found out Wednesday, that good will only goes so far. He will never, ever get the benefit of the doubt in the NHL. That's the price of being Matt Cooke. Rational thinkers everywhere (the NHL's department of player safety included, as they saw no need for supplemental discipline) saw Wednesday's incident for what it was: One of the best players in the league suffering an ugly, unfortunate injury during a freak accident along the boards. It's something that has happened before in the NHL, and something that will happen again.
But the Senators and those close to them aren't really in a position to be rational about the situation, and they can be forgiven if they aren't. Losing a player like Karlsson (when you're already without Jason Spezza, and unexpectedly lost leading goal-scorer Milan Michalek before Wednesday's game even started) can be a devastating blow to a season. And the tone from the Senators after the game wasn't positive. They sounded a little suspicious.
General manager Bryan Murray was incredulous. When he wasn't yelling at a reporter in a hallway for laughing at an unrelated post-game event, he responded to a question about the play by saying, "It's Matt Cooke. What should I say? Look at the replay."
Coach Paul MacLean was slightly more measured in his response but added, "We all know who was involved," when discussing the injury. Captain Daniel Alfredsson wouldn't speculate whether there was intent on Cooke's part but wondered, "I don't know why you would hit somebody like that in that situation."
Again, the Senators' frustrations are understandable. Karlsson is a game-changer and one of the best players in the world. After his exit, the Senators struggled to do much of anything offensively in the third period and failed to mount a comeback. But if this play, this freak accident, involves any other player on the Penguins -- or 98 percent of the players in the NHL -- this discussion isn't happening and I don't believe for a second the Senators would have reacted the way they did.
Even though the media reaction was pretty unanimous with the belief that it was an accident and a fluke play, there still seemed to be a need to discuss it. That's a problem Cooke will have for the rest of his days in the NHL.
He's never going to completely get the benefit of the doubt, even when he probably should.