Sunday, July 15, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: Smooth sailing or not, Jon Cooper's always ready to navigate

TAMPA — In Jon Cooper's world, playoff seasons tumble out one after another.

In Cooper's world, charitable work is a duty.

Tuesday brought the Lightning coach's first charity fishing tournament, "Coop's Catch for Kids," to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.

"The reason it didn't happen before this is I was trying to find myself in this community as a coach," Cooper said. "I couldn't undertake it without first cementing myself in the town a little bit."

Three straight playoff seasons. A run to the Stanley Cup final. Another run last season, to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

Cemented.

Cooper sat in his office at Amalie Arena and talked about his friend Tony Colton, 16, a cancer survivor, and another fighter named Kyle Peters. Cooper has a name for all of them: warriors.

"They are staring something in the face," he said. "A doctor might tell them the end is near, but they don't act that way. They push on and say, 'This isn't going to happen to me.' "

For Cooper, it lends perspective to Lightning obstacles over the past few years. The Steven Stamkos injuries. The Marty St. Louis trade. The Stamkos contract impasse. The Ben Bishop injuries. The Jo Drouin saga. More injuries. Bishop's future heading into this season. Cooper has seen it all and come out remarkably well on the other side.

He said, "Once you've gone through these, as the leader of the band, I truly believe that when as a team they see you're okay and confident, and there's a belief we as a staff have in our players, no matter what happens, they'll have that same belief. … They're just speed bumps. Just slow down, go over the bumps, then speed up again."

Well, the band is back together.

Stamkos: signed.

Victor Hedman: signed.

And now Nikita Kucherov: signed.

"Deep down inside, I always felt to my core that we were going to stick together," Cooper said recently. "It might have been 51-49, but the 51 said we were going to stick together."

The band is back. So are expectations.

All that's left is to lift Stanley.

Sure. Nothing to it.

The cement never completely dries, does it?

This is the Lightning's third swing at the Cup under Cooper.

Hold it, Cooper said.

"Don't say the first year was a swing, because nobody thought we'd do anything. All of a sudden, the window became wider because we made it to the Stanley Cup final. Window? I don't believe in windows opening and closing. I just believe every single year that we're going to win the Stanley Cup. That's what I believe."

It was more than speed bumps last season.

"Last year was different," Cooper said. "Expectations came into play. We'd never had them before. You can do all the talking you want, but I'll be 100 percent honest, there was not a huge desire to play the 82 games during the regular season. Everyone just wanted to speed back into the playoffs. It took a toll. We just thought it was going to come easy for us. We read our press clippings. We thought we were a little bit better than we were. We just had to grow."

Tuesday was his time with his warrior friends. Tuesday was for fishing.

"It takes you out of your environment and makes you forget everything else," Cooper said. "When I'm on the water, I'm just at peace out there. You're on the water, telling stories, but nothing is about hockey."

There will be time for that soon enough. Time to know it's time for Johnny Coop and his team to land the big one.

Cooper was asked about Bishop, if he'll be here all season or be gone after it.

"To sit here and say one of our top players might not be here at the end of the year, you can never coach your team thinking that way," Cooper said. "… I'm sure there are guys ready to take my spot. Bish has guys ready to take his spot. Guys are going to be here to take Stammer's spot. It's the circle of life. But we're here together in the present. The question is what are we going to do with this?"

Full speed ahead, bumps and all.

Jon Cooper's world.

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