The 1997 NHL Entry Draft, the last draft held in Pittsburgh, may have taken place in the distant past, but for one particular Penguin that day will never be forgotten.
Forward Matt Cooke
made the trip from Ontario to Pittsburgh as a draft eligible prospect and started his NHL career after the Vancouver Canucks selected him in the sixth round (144th overall).
“I remember coming through the tunnels and seeing downtown,” Cooke said of his trip to Pittsburgh for the draft. “I was in the William Penn doing some testing with other teams. I sat up in Mellon Arena for quite a few rounds, more than I had expected.
“At that point it was a relief. You don’t want to be the guy that goes the draft and doesn’t get drafted. I was just relieved and happy I was picked.”
But the long wait would prove to be worth it for both Cooke and the Canucks. He made the jump to the NHL in 1998-99, appearing in 30 games. Cooke would go on to play eight-plus seasons in a Canucks sweater.
“It just proves that they have nine rounds in the draft for a reason,” Cooke said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re drafted. Just getting an opportunity and putting a logo on your jersey, setting yourself up in it depends on how bad you want it.”
While Cooke didn’t spent much time sight seeing around Pittsburgh during his draft stop in ’97, the city make an impression on him. And it is quite ironic that a decade later his career would come full circle when he signed with the Penguins in the 2008 offseason.
“I didn’t get a chance to view the city that much other than seeing the two stadiums at the time. They were both almost brand new,” he said. “It was a really cool thing to come through the tunnel and see the yellow bridges, not knowing that 16 years later I would be back.”
And one of the main items that attracted Cooke to the Penguins is the same thing that attracted the NHL to Pittsburgh – a brand-new arena, the CONSOL Energy Center.
“I think it’s a huge bonus feature for the city of Pittsburgh, not only for us as players and the fans in Pittsburgh to come and watch us, but also for other teams to come in,” Cooke said. “This place is like a hotel. I think it’s well deserved. They’ll have tons of fan support, just like they do for every other event. It’s a great place for people to come and have a draft.”