(Photo by Scott Audette/NHL)
Two things have characterized Cooper’s long route to the NHL: confidence and championships. Is a Stanley Cup next on the agenda?There are no crazy outfits here, no marriage proposals, no millionaire anti-heroes repeating they just showed up so they won’t get fined. The NHL’s media day for the Stanley Cup final is not the exercise in excess and the sublime that is the Super Bowl’s, but you still get the occasional silly question. Jonathan Toews was asked what his second favorite cup is, after the Stanley Cup, of course. He begged off, but we’re thinking “protective” and “Red Solo” had to be high on his list. It’s the kind of day when the athletes and coaches who are about to embark on one of the most intense and gruelling periods of their careers take time to share their thoughts. It’s also a day when Jon Cooper, the folksy former defense attorney from Prince George, B.C., can add to his growing reputation as the most interesting man in hockey. Sitting alongside GM Steve Yzerman, who was in his full suit and tie, Cooper was wearing flip-flops, shorts and a Lightning-issued golf shirt. This story traces some of its roots back to 2011-12, when Cooper was coaching the Norfolk Admirals and his team reeled off a 28-game winning streak en route to the Calder Cup. In the words of Ondrej Palat, it was there that “(Cooper) taught me how to play big-boy hockey.” The importance of that team in what the Lightning have become can’t be ignored. Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Mark Barberio were all on that team. Cory Conacher was dealt for Ben Bishop, and Radko Gudas became Braydon Coburn. Dustin Tokarski and Richard Panik couldn’t find a place in the Lightning lineup and were moved or lost for next to nothing. You don’t get to the Stanley Cup final without drafting, signing and developing that kind of talent, and your players don’t get there as fast if they don’t have a guy like Cooper guiding them.
But the actual roots go back much further, to a high school team in Michigan, then a Jr. B team Cooper coached while juggling his law practice. That led to a chance to coach the Texarkana Bandits of the North American League, so Cooper took his shingle down and went out into the world as a coach. He traded the lucrative life as a defense attorney for Texarkana, where he was coach and GM but did everything from sell advertising to put up the boards and paint the lines on the ice.“They literally played in a barn,” said Chris Cooper, Jon’s younger brother who is the president and CEO of an oil production and exploration company in Calgary. “The first year Jon was there, my dad and I went to visit him. I remember we were sitting in this little restaurant and my dad said, ‘I can’t believe we’re here in Texarkana and he’s coaching instead of using his law degree. I don’t know where any of this is going, but he’s my son and I’ve got to support him.’ ” Extremely good call by Bob Cooper, owner and operator of R.J. Cooper Construction Ltd., in Prince George. You can understand his reticence, though. All that money for a private school education, then university and law school and he was chucking it all to become a hockey coach? The team moved to St. Louis the next year, and that’s when the winning began. Cooper led the Bandits to a 90-23-0 record over the next two seasons and won league championships in 2007 and 2008, then moved on to the USHL, where he guided the Green Bay Gamblers to a championship in his second year, then on to the Admirals, where he took two years to win another championship. The 2014-15 season was Cooper’s second full season with the Lightning. Over that time, Cooper has been incredibly comfortable in his own skin. And why wouldn’t he be? He has a law degree, is a tall, good-looking guy who relates well to people and has become an outstanding coach. His approach to his players is constructive and there’s also a certain confidence about him. Tampa Bay has definitely taken on the personality of its coach in many ways, challenging the NHL establishment without giving it the middle finger. The Lightning are the first team in history to play four Original Six teams in the playoffs, and there was reason to believe they would lose in every series. Cooper noticed it right away in the playoffs. The Bolts were down 3-2 to the Red Wings in the first round and faced the prospect of winning on the road to force a Game 7. “You could just see the attitude in the players, ‘Coach, don’t worry about this one, we’ve got this,’ ” Cooper said. “And they did.” After finishing his four years at Harvard, Killorn joined the Admirals for the 18th game of the 28-game winning streak and saw a team, led by its coach, that was supremely confident in itself. “That swagger, if you want to call it that, was certainly there,” he said. “It starts from ‘Coop’ down. He’s definitely a coach who projects confidence and has a swagger.” Two-thirds of Tampa Bay’s successful ‘Triplet Line’ of Johnson, Palat and Nikita Kucherov (who joined the Syracuse Crunch in 2012-13 when Tampa Bay changed AHL affiliates), was born on that team, and now it’s one of the best lines in the NHL. It’s comprised of a player who was never drafted (Johnson), a seventh-round pick (Palat) and a second-rounder (Kucherov), two players who were never supposed to work out and another who was a 50-50 proposition. We’ll say it again: teams don’t make it to the top without this kind of development. Cooper put Palat and Johnson on a line with Panik that season. Johnson was coming off his overage year in the WHL and Tampa Bay was contemplating putting Palat back in the QMJHL to do the same or dispatching him to the ECHL. But the Lightning kept him with the Admirals and put the three rookies together. Johnson scored 31 goals, Panik 19 and Palat just nine, but by the time Cooper was coaching with the Lightning, he brought all of them up because he knew they had already passed the test in the AHL. “They weren’t being brought up one at a time, playing eight minutes a night, having one bad shift, then maybe not having the trust of the coach,” Cooper said. “They got to fail before they could succeed.” It has been a short learning curve at the NHL for both Cooper and his band of youngsters he nurtured in Norfolk. And they have each other to thank for the opportunity. “I’m not here without them, and potentially they’re not here as fast without myself,” Cooper said. “They’d be here, but not as fast. Steve has believed in us from the beginning. This is what you have.” This feature appears in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.