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Wild's Cooke, Yeo have fond memories of Pittsburgh

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke and coach Mike Yeo have fond memories of their time in Pittsburgh, but they are not looking to the past.

Cooke and Yeo, members of the 2008-09 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, will return to Consol Energy Center for the first time since exiting the Penguins organization. Each said he will take a moment to reflect on his tenure with Pittsburgh, but that won't linger after the puck drop on Thursday.

"It's always emotional," Cooke said. "Especially having success, winning a Cup here, the fans really make you feel like you're a Pittsburgher forever when you win here. They supported me through tough times too. So, I have a special place for Pittsburgh.

Matt Cooke
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 12
SOG: 42 | +/-: 6
"But unfortunately, this is a business and I play for the Minnesota Wild now and as emotional as it is to see everybody for the first time, today I have to go help my team win a hockey game."

Cooke, who spent the past five seasons with the Penguins before signing with Minnesota during the offseason, was one of Pittsburgh's more physical forwards, but became a fan favorite after adjusting to a more disciplined style of play.

He has carried that discipline to Minnesota and is sixth on the team with 12 points (five goals). Forward Mike Rupp, Cooke's teammate for two seasons in Pittsburgh, said there is a noticeable difference between the way Cooke played then and the way he performs now.

"He provides a lot on the ice," Rupp said. "He's one of those guys who obviously kills penalties and adds experience. So, you can't have enough of those guys and at the beginning of the year, he was adding to the offense too. Those are all good things that you want to add to any team.

"I wasn't surprised [that Cooke changed his game] from knowing him. I've talked to him about the steps he's done and I think everyone knows the steps he's done. He's a guy that when he decides to do something, he's a student of the game and wants to learn how to be better."

Yeo, a Penguins assistant coach from 2005-2010, said Cooke brought the same positive traits he remembers him having in Pittsburgh to Minnesota.

"He's a guy we kind of looked and said we identified a need and he would fit it," Yeo said. "We were looking for a guy who would play a real important role in our penalty kill, a guy who could play against the top players, a guy who's going to bring you momentum and obviously the speed and physicality that he brings.

"The fact that he's playing as disciplined as he is a bonus for us."

Cooke credited Yeo with making his transition to the Wild seamless.

"Having Mike's trust, knowing him and being able to come into a situation where the system was fairly familiar, I think allowed me to be successful right away," Cooke said. "It wasn't a big transition and that was important for me in my decision making in July."

After coaching Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for five seasons, Yeo called the thought of coaching against Crosby, who leads the League with 49 points, "scary," but thinks he is prepared due to a coaching style similar to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

"It's hard to put it on one or two things [learned from Bylsma]. Obviously, I can point to Xs and Os and other things strategically," Yeo said. "The way [Bylsma] conducts himself, the way he communicates, the way that he prepares his teams, those are things that stick out most."

"It's always emotional. Especially having success, winning a Cup here, the fans really make you feel like you're a Pittsburgher forever when you win here.-- Minnesota forward Matt Cooke

The Wild have earned consecutive shootout victories and are in eighth place in the Western Conference. Yeo said he is more focused on winning the game Thursday than reminiscing about his time with the Penguins.

"For me personally, I think enough time has passed," Yeo said. "Obviously, it's exciting to come in and see the faces, but it's an important game for our group, for our team. We want to go into Christmas break feeling good about ourselves and we've won a couple games in a row, we'd like to keep that going."

Despite playing the majority of his career with the Vancouver Canucks, Cooke enjoyed his greatest success while with the Penguins. He had more than 30 points in four of his five seasons with Pittsburgh (he had 21 during last season's 48-game regular season). He surpassed that mark in three of his nine seasons before joining the Penguins.

But his view on the game Thursday is similar to Yeo's.

Cooke said he would like to have a tribute video to be played, similar to one played for his former Pittsburgh linemate, San Jose Sharks forward Tyler Kennedy, earlier this season. But he said his primary motivation is beating the Penguins.

"I need to go out and prepare myself to play a game. That's what's most important to me," Cooke said. "Obviously, I hope I don't get booed. But it wouldn't be the first time, probably won't be the last."

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