Matt Cooke, Left Wing, 6th round, 144th overall, 1997 Draft
By rights, Matt Cooke should have never wound up in a Vancouver Canucks uniform. He was a bit player on an awful 1996 Windsor Spitfires team – scoring only 19 points in 61 games – and was overlooked by all 26 team at the 1996 NHL Entry Draft. The confident Belleville, Ontario native, however, decided to try out for the Toronto Maple Leafs at their training camp that September.
Cooke left a lasting impression, impressing the Leafs’ coaching and managerial brass with his hard-nosed play and tenacity. The Leafs decided to offer the walk-on player a professional contract, which the young winger happily signed. That should have been the end of the story. Except, of course, it was anything but.
The Leafs of the late 1990s – heck, essentially of the last half-century – were hardly a model of organizational excellence. The Cooke signing would provide only more evidence of that fact. At the conclusion of his successful training camp with the Leafs, Cooke signed a three-year deal with the team. The deal was worth a reported $300,000 a year and included a $50,000 signing bonus. Cooke, understandably, was very pleased with the result and felt that his time playing with the pros had helped his game considerably. “I learned so many little things there [at training camp],” said Cooke, “Stuff like where to go when my teammates have the puck and how to find guys when they’re covered. It makes a big difference.”
Unfortunately for Cooke, his dream of playing for the team he idolized growing up would soon fall apart. The signed contract was left on the desk of then-GM Cliff Fletcher, who then somehow managed to bury it under a stack of other paperwork. All this would have been of little consequence had the contract been rediscovered by October 1st, the date by which all contracts had to be submitted to the league for approval. However, the contract did not resurface until October 9th, well after the deadline. “It was a clerical oversight,” said Leafs assistant GM Bill Watters. “It should never have happened,” he continued, perhaps understating the matter. Cooke would, therefore, re-enter the draft in 1997.
Cooke parlayed his strong showing at Leafs camp into a breakout OHL season. He would lead the Spitfires in scoring during the 1996-97 season and help them return to the playoffs. His agent at the time – former Canuck goaltender Rick Heinz – surmised that Cooke’s 45-goal, 95-point season would earn him a significant raise in any future deal. “He’s having a big year,” said Heinz, “Which will command more money.” Although the Leafs had every intention of honouring the original deal if Cooke again went undrafted, Heinz figured that would no longer suffice. “We’ll want a lot more money and we won’t sign the same deal again. He’s three times the player,” he said. Heinz figured his client could go anywhere from the second to fifth rounds in the ’97 draft, considered a very strong class.
The Leafs could have drafted Cooke again in the 1997 draft, but they didn’t seem especially motivated to select a player they wanted to sign less than a year before. Even though they didn’t have a pick until the third round, the Leafs still felt Jeff Farkas, Adam Mair, Frank Mrazek, and Eric Gooldy were all superior selections to Cooke. And so, with the 144th selection, the Vancouver Canucks selected the over-age winger.
The Canucks were fans of Cooke’s aggressiveness and ability to play at both ends of the rink. “He was passed over in the draft the first time around and we took him because he plays a gritty game and can be a spark plug,” said Canucks director of amateur scouting Jack Birch. That same type of game would earn Cooke a roster spot on Team Canada for the 1998 World Juniors, where Canada would finish a disappointing eighth.
Cooke would earn an opening night roster spot with the Canucks the following season, and would yo-yo between the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and the big club over the next two seasons. He would finally solidify his place in the Canucks lineup towards the end of the 1999-2000 season. He was a favourite of both Mike Keenan and (especially) fellow Belleville native, Marc Crawford for his forechecking and penalty-killing abilities. But amongst Canuck fans, he is best remembered as a sparkplug with a knack for scoring timely playoff goals.
While he would eventually fall out of favour with Canuck coach Alain Vigneault, forcing a trade to Washington at the 2008 deadline, he would still play several more productive seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins (and then finish his career in Minnesota). The feisty player who was passed over in his original draft year would win a Cup as a Penguin in 2009 and then ultimately cross the 1000 game career threshold. He was sometimes controversial, and often downright dirty, but he earned every second he played in the big leagues. A number of questionable – and sometimes ugly – hits later in his career would see Cooke forever branded as a something of a cheap shot artist around the league.
As a Canuck, however, “The Cooker” stands as excellent value for a sixth-round pick. Getting a thousand-game player out of a 144th overall pick is a big win for any franchise. But to think it might never have happened, save for a “clerical error” in the fall of 1996, makes this story from the Canucks history vault just a little more satisfying.
With files from the Windsor Star, The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo), and The Province.