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New Lightning coach Cooper praised for methods

New Lightning coach Jon Cooper is praised by Lightning players who also played for him in the AHL for making the game fun and creating camaraderie.

DIRK SHADD | Times

New Lightning coach Jon Cooper is praised by Lightning players who also played for him in the AHL for making the game fun and creating camaraderie.

TAMPA — Funny the way the same phrase kept coming up to describe the relationship new Lightning coach Jon Cooper had with his players at AHL Norfolk and Syracuse.

First it was Tampa Bay defenseman Keith Aulie, who played last season for Calder Cup champion Norfolk, saying, "We'd run through the wall for him."

Then it was Lightning assistant coach Steve Thomas, who made plenty of trips to Norfolk and Syracuse to help Cooper, saying, "Guys for him would run right through that wall."

"I don't know how to explain it," Cooper said Wednesday, "because I'd go through a wall for them."

It is all metaphorical, of course — nobody is really running through walls — but it does paint a picture of players who bonded with each other and their coach.

Players said that was a big part of what they accomplished on the ice, and as Cooper described it, "When everyone buys into what we're doing, it just becomes a fine-oiled machine."

Still, it's one thing for a coach to bring younger players together with things such as the bowling league Cooper designed this season for his Syracuse players, or by joining his Norfolk players after victories last season in renditions of the song We Are Young by Fun.

It's another to try it with big-time pro athletes who have families to go home to and other obligations outside the team.

"If anyone is going to be able to do it, he is," Thomas said. "He's got a presence. He's a leader. People want to be around him. He's one of those infectious characters people want to hang out with."

Here is why Cooper, 45, whose first practice is today at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, believes it can work: "Because fundamentally it comes down to everyone respecting each other and believing in what other people do and the way you communicate it to them."

So Cooper said he takes time to find out the best way to reach each player.

"Different strokes for different folks," he said. "Some people are a little bit more high maintenance, and some aren't. You have to find out who is who, who needs an arm around them and who needs their knuckles tapped. It's finding that balance, but it takes time to learn about guys."

And it translates to the NHL?

"It translates if you're a doctor running a hospital or someone running a business," Cooper said. "Look at successful companies. It's people working together and on the same page. Those are the people having success. It translates to sports."

With his minor-league teams, the process included a lot of fun.

At Syracuse this season, Cooper established a bowling league for his players: five players on a team, once a week as the schedule allowed.

The thing is, the league became more about the uniforms the players designed for themselves than the actual bowling. Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, who started the season with the Crunch, said his team, which wore cutoff jeans, vests and cowboy hats, was most fashionable.

Last season during Norfolk's title run, Cooper joined players in song after wins.

"The team camaraderie he creates is something like I've never seen," Aulie said. "He's big into going to battle for each other, fighting for each other. All that contributes to how players buy in to play for him."

"He makes the game fun," said Lightning wing Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who also played for the Admirals. "You come to the rink with a smile. That's what he does."

And a 307-112-42 record and four titles in seven seasons as a junior and minor-league coach seem to speak for themselves.

"When everyone is ready to go to bat for everyone and everyone has each other's back," Cooper said, "that is when you're ready to go to war."

New Lightning coach Cooper praised for methods 03/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 1:30am]
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