Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Penguins' Cooke Found Man of Steel to Lean On

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Penguins' Cooke Found Man of Steel to Lean On

Article excerpt

The best place to start is during a television timeout at the Penguins-Winnipeg game Tuesday night. Curse your luck if you went for a beer or made a bathroom run or checked your cell phone and missed a "5 Questions With Penguins Defenseman Brooks Orpik" segment on the Consol Energy Center scoreboard. Matt Cooke was sitting on the Penguins bench. He's glad he didn't miss it.

"What's the best advice you've ever been given?" Orpik was asked.

" 'Never be satisfied. Always try to get better,' " Orpik said.

"What a great answer," Cooke said later. "That doesn't just apply to hockey. It applies to life."

Everybody knows about the re-invention of Cooke as a player. He scored his career-best 17th goal in the 5-1 win against Nashville Thursday night. He's a strong defensive forward on a team that is a heavy favorite to win its second Stanley Cup in four seasons. He's a top penalty-killer on, arguably, the NHL's top penalty-killing unit.

Best of all, he's doing it without the rough stuff that earned him the deserved reputation as one of the league's dirtiest players. He was nominated last week for the NHL's Masterton Trophy, which goes to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

But Cooke also is working hard to get better as a person. He has become close to one of the great men in Pittsburgh sports history. "He's an older brother to me," Cooke said. "My mentor."

Former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith.

"I'll never forget the way he was there for me when I had my situation last season," Cooke said.

Cooke was referencing his 17-game suspension at the end of the season for throwing an elbow at the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. It included the Penguins' seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I let everyone down," Cooke said. "It wasn't like Sid [Crosby] or [Evgeni Malkin]. They were injured and couldn't help the team. I was healthy and there was nothing I could do to help. That was a gut- wrenching feeling. I just felt so helpless."

Smith helped Cooke get through it, man to man, one professional athlete to another.

"I knew he knew what I was going through," Cooke said. "He was a set of ears for me. He listened to me and perked me up at a time I really needed it. I never had that kind of relationship with someone before."

Cooke and Smith had met through their sons early in the 2010-11 school year. Jackson Cooke and Elijah Smith were first-graders at Eden Christian Academy in Wexford and became best friends. That led to sleepovers, which led to the parents becoming friends.

"Let me tell you a funny story about that," Smith said. "The first time I really met Matt, he came to our house to pick up Jackson. The next thing I know, he has a Nerf gun and he's running all through my house, shooting darts at the kids. …

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