Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Cooper instills fight into Lightning

TAMPA — As soon as Jon Cooper heard the questions coming his way Monday, he laughed.

The Lightning coach knew where the conversation was headed because it has been part of every stop of his career.

Cooper's minor-league teams — while consistently successful with four championships — always have fought a lot.

In the past nine seasons they led their respective leagues in fights four times and have been in the top three eight times.

It makes you wonder if Cooper is channeling his inner Fred Shero, coach of the 1970s Broad Street Bullies.

But Cooper said those statistics "sometimes get blown out of proportion a little bit" because "we don't play a fighting style. It's just playing the game tough and playing the game honest. Fights will happen that way."

In other words, don't expect the Lightning to be the old Flyers — the team doesn't have that kind of roster anyway — but don't expect the Ice Capades, either.

Cooper has told players he expects them to play a gritty, physical, sandpaper-like game. And if things get rough, he expects players to stick up for each other with a mentality he compared to a "wolf pack."

"When you play the game hard, eventually you're going to (tick) somebody off," Cooper said at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. "When that happens, you can't run to the back of the line. You have to stick up for yourselves, and that's what we talk about, doing that as a unit."

"The message is clear: You stick up for your teammates and you play hard-nosed," said right wing Dana Tyrell, who played for Cooper last season at Syracuse, which was second in the AHL with 99 fights. "Everybody knows he likes to score goals and defense comes first. But if push comes to shove, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes for the team."

•••

Hockey is a lot less violent than when the Flyers terrorized the league with as much punching power as scoring.

Even so, Cooper said, "There's a little bit of intimidation still involved, and if you can pull that edge ahead of somebody else, why wouldn't you take advantage of that? You can play a brand of hockey where a team looks at the game and says, 'This is going to be a tough one. We're going to have to button the chin straps.' It can wear on teams."

The question with the Lightning is how to get a team steeped in its offensive skill to buy into Cooper's scrap-iron vision?

Look, said Cooper, who was promoted from Syracuse in April after Guy Boucher was fired, "This is a hard way to play. We have to build a mind-set. But in saying that, players have not gotten to this level without having some sort of fight in them. When it becomes part of your DNA and you see the results, then it just becomes another habit. But it takes time. You need players with the right fame of mind, but it's easier to build a wolf pack than having a lone wolf do it."

Said Radko Gudas, who played three years for Cooper in the AHL: "Finish your checks and do the little things more physical. It will start to get into the mentality of the team from one player to another."

•••

Okay, let's say it's not all about fighting. But as Cooper said, "If you play the game a certain way, eventually people start looking for you."

Which is why Cooper demands players have each other's backs. Which is why 22 Syracuse players fought last season — goalies, too — tied for second in the AHL, according to hockeyfights.com.

"That's the mentality," said right wing Eric Neilson, who led the Crunch last season with 17 fights. " 'If you're not going to play tough and stand up for teammates, you're not going to play on my team.' With Coop, his mentality is if one goes, we all go. It's a group pack mentality."

"Not that it wasn't there in the past year," Tampa Bay right wing B.J. Crombeen said. "But we're going to make sure it's there every single night and every guy is willing to do what it takes to help the team stand together."

And that, Neilson said, builds bonds: "That's what you're talking about when you win that one-goal game and you're in the dressing room sweating together, bleeding together. It translates to good things in the locker room."

Actually, the Lightning fought a lot last season. Its 31 bouts were fifth in the NHL, and Crombeen led the league with 14.

Still, there is no true heavyweight. Not that it matters to Cooper.

"You can say Team A is really tough because they have the toughest guy in the league," he said. "But I'll take the team with a bunch of guys that game it out. That is the tough team."

Scrimmage: Marty St. Louis' goal at the end of a crisp two-on-one with Steven Stamkos gave the White a 2-1 victory over the Blue. Brett Connolly also scored for the White with a redirect of Jonathan Drouin's pass/shot. Ondrej Palat scored for the Blue.

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