Sunday, October 14, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Passion takes Cooper from lawyer to Lightning coach

A case can be made that Thomas E. Brennan Jr. started Jon Cooper on the path to becoming the Lightning's ninth head coach.

It was Brennan, a district court judge in Mason, Mich., who in 1999 got his young lawyer friend his first coaching gig, at Lansing, Mich., Catholic Central High, where Brennan's son was the goalie.

"The year was magical," Brennan recalled last week. "He took a ragtag group of hockey players and made them believe they could win, and they did."

They won a regional championship, to be exact, which got Cooper named coach of the year by the Lansing State Journal.

Cooper fell so in love with coaching — "I love taking 23 people who are all in different directions doing things and making them into one" — he eventually closed his law practice to pursue it full time.

Fourteen years later, Cooper, 45, is Tampa Bay's bench boss, with a 1-0-0 record after his debut Friday against the Devils.

Cooper said he did not get into coaching to reach the NHL. But success kept pushing him forward, through Junior B hockey, to Midget AAA, to junior teams in Texarkana, Texas, and St. Louis and Green Bay, Wis., to the American Hockey League, where beginning in 2010 he coached Tampa Bay affiliates in Norfolk, Va., and Syracuse, N.Y.

Cooper won North American Hockey League championships in 2007 and '08 with St. Louis, a United States Hockey League title in 2010 with Green Bay, and in 2012 led Norfolk to the Calder Cup title and a 28-game winning streak, longest by a North American pro hockey team.

"I would have been 100 percent okay if I never coached in the NHL," Cooper said. "Coming (to the Lightning) now was, 'Okay, we've done it at every level, let's go see if we can do it here.' "

•••

The story of how Cooper got into coaching has the feel of a fantasy.

A graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, Mich., Cooper was working in Brennan's court for $1,000 a month as a public defender. Cooper and Brennan were teammates on a hockey team called the Legal Eagles.

Brennan, now retired, said Cooper's nickname was "Fancy Pants" because "he was fancy with the puck and loved to score."

One day Brennan asked Cooper to coach his son's high school team. Cooper, who played growing up in Prince George, British Columbia, but was a lacrosse star at New York's Hofstra University, said why not.

"None of the guys were going to play pro hockey, but they loved the game," Cooper said, "and they had a coach who loved the game as well. We just kind of molded this thing together."

Catholic Central won its first regional title in 25 years. But for pure schmaltz, nothing beats its road trip to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

The historic home of the Maple Leafs was losing its tenant to the new Air Canada Centre, and Cooper and his assistant, Pat Murray, a former NHL player, bussed the Catholic Central kids to scrimmage at the Garden.

Sitting in the stands, Cooper said he had his epiphany.

"I just remember the feeling I had," he said. "I said, 'I'm never going to be able to play here, but to be able to coach here, what a feeling that would be.' It's just the feeling that got me going."

•••

Cooper's wife, Jessie, calls her husband "a romantic."

Cooper proposed at sunset on a dock owned by Jessie's family on Lake Mitchell in Cadillac, Mich., with a bottle of champagne and what Jessie described as "really inspired words."

Jessie, who met Cooper on a blind date, said it is exactly the kind of proposal she wanted.

"He truly watches and knows and understands people," she said. "He pays attention. He's one of the few people I know in life who really does."

That is instructive because it is one way Cooper builds such strong bonds with his players.

"Jon Cooper is a people person," said Ken Young, owner of AHL Norfolk and a Tampa resident, "and by that, I mean he gets to know his players, gets to know what really makes them tick, what their interests are, and he tries to mold the team around those interests. He understands the individual, and then he's able to bring the chemistry together to make the team."

He is extremely disciplined. Jessie said his closet "looks like a military closet."

He once scored six goals in a game for Hofstra's lacrosse team, and he studied law with the intent of becoming an agent. He is so competitive, said Brendan Bruss, president of the junior Green Bay team Cooper coached, his motto was "Play anyone, any place, any time."

"He had charisma. (He is) a good-looking guy, bright," said John Danowski, Cooper's lacrosse coach at Hofstra and now the coach at Duke. "You just knew whatever he decided to do, he was going to be successful."

It just took Cooper some time to decide what to do. About being a lawyer, Cooper recalled thinking, " 'Is this what I'm going to be doing 35 years from now?' I liked what I was doing, but I didn't love what I was doing."

Now, he said, "I love what I'm doing."

"He would have made a damn good lawyer," judge Brennan said. "He would have made a lot of money. He would have been a guy who won a lot of arguments."

Instead, he's won lots of games.

     
 
Comments
‘Pucks had eyes’ for Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

‘Pucks had eyes’ for Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

TAMPA – Saturday, the Lightning made it look as if its first two games of the season never happened.Remember that  team that couldn't score more than one goal a game? It seemed all but a distant memory.The team that scored the most goals o...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Nick Kelly’s takeaways from Saturday’s Lightning-Blue Jackets game

Nick Kelly’s takeaways from Saturday’s Lightning-Blue Jackets game

So much for those issues on the power play. The Lightning spent about half of practice Friday working on its power play after failing to score on eight opportunities in its first two games of the season. The work paid off with four power-play goals a...
Published: 10/13/18
Updated: 10/14/18
Lightning gets scoring message, tops Blue Jackets 8-2

Lightning gets scoring message, tops Blue Jackets 8-2

TAMPA — In its first two games, the Lightning trying to score pretty goals produced only ugly results.It mustered two total goals through two games with that approach. So coach Jon Cooper made it clear after Thursday's loss to the Canucks: Go i...
Published: 10/13/18
Lightning journal: Rookie Mathieu Joseph has no fear

Lightning journal: Rookie Mathieu Joseph has no fear

TAMPA — Though Lightning F Mathieu Joseph shined in training camp and made the opening-day roster, his spot was not cemented in the lineup.But if he keeps playing how he has played early, he won't be going anywhere soon."The way he is playing t...
Published: 10/13/18
Lightning journal: Working on the power play

Lightning journal: Working on the power play

BRANDON — The Lightning wasted little time waiting to work on its power play once players stepped on the ice for practice Friday.The first drill: Working on the power play in separate groups on each rink at the Ice Sports Forum.The second drill...
Published: 10/12/18
What to do with those Lightning panic buttons

What to do with those Lightning panic buttons

TAMPA —Don't you have to have won the Stanley Cup to have a Stanley Cup hangover?The Lightning are 1-1. Given expectations, you'd think the sky was falling.Come with me if you want to live!Such is life after Tampa Bay's uninspired start. An und...
Published: 10/12/18
It starts with a bang and ends with a whimper

It starts with a bang and ends with a whimper

TAMPA — After Lightning coach Jon Cooper watched Brock Boeser at the All-Star Game in Tampa last season, he knew he would have his hands full when the Canucks came to town."What a talent he is," Cooper said.The right wing proved Cooper right wh...
Published: 10/11/18
Tom Jones: Late Lightning meltdown raises concerns

Tom Jones: Late Lightning meltdown raises concerns

TAMPAWell, this Lightning season sure isn't off to the start everyone expected.This is supposed to be the fun stuff — kicking ice and taking names. Running teams out of the building and scoring goals by the bushel. And wins. Lots and lots of ea...
Published: 10/11/18
Nick Kelly’s takeaways from Thursday’s Lightning-Canucks game

Nick Kelly’s takeaways from Thursday’s Lightning-Canucks game

That's how you want to start. After the Lightning had a lackluster first period Saturday vs. Florida, it all but dominated the first against Vancouver, outshooting the Canucks 17-5. Yes, the same Lightning team that did not register five shots in the...
Published: 10/11/18
Lightning journal: Break benefits Paquette after cut finger during season opener

Lightning journal: Break benefits Paquette after cut finger during season opener

TAMPA — C Cedric Paquette immediately thought the worst.What would happen to his left middle finger?A center for the Panthers skated right over it on a faceoff in the first period of the Lightning's season opener on Saturday. Paquette left the ...
Published: 10/11/18