The unexpected journey of Lightning coach Jon Cooper

Attorney Jon Cooper never thought he'd be an NHL coach.

Published
Updated

TAMPA

Jon Cooper was scraping to make a living, an attorney working for indigent clients, when he got a phone call that changed his life, and later, the fortunes of the Lightning.

It was 1999, and Cooper, a former Hofstra University lacrosse player, had moved from Wall Street to East Lansing, Mich., to study at Thomas Cooley Law School, hoping to become a sports agent.

Making $250 a week after passing the bar, he was a good attorney, too, a charismatic, cocky kid from Prince George, British Columbia, a slick negotiator. "He could sell a pink elephant," says Thomas Brennan, a retired Michigan judge. "He had that innate talent."

If it weren't for Brennan, 63, Cooper might still be running his own practice, or representing some of the NHL's stars. Instead, Cooper, in his second full season as coach, has led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final, which opens Wednesday against the Blackhawks at Amalie Arena.

Cooper's coaching career started when Brennan asked him to coach his son's high school team in Lansing. What followed on the way to Tampa Bay were stops in Texarkana, Texas; St. Louis; Norfolk, Va.; and Syracuse, N.Y. "It's an amazing story," Brennan said. "Magical."

•••

Cooper, 47, has said that since he was born, he has wanted his name etched on the Stanley Cup.

He found out quickly it wouldn't happen for him as a player. He played for his high school team at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, but he ended up following his other passion, lacrosse, at Hofstra. Hockey, however, was never far from his mind.

Teammate and roommate Marc Riccio said Cooper would always carry a newspaper under his arm, pouring through NHL box scores and transactions before classes. Cooper attended many Islanders games at Nassau Coliseum.

"I never, obviously, ever thought I'd be standing here," Cooper said. "But maybe there is a little piece that drove me from my days there."

When Cooper was in law school, he played for the Legal Eagles, an adult team of lawyers and judges. Brennan said they dubbed Cooper "fancy pants" for his puck skills. With his son's team needing a coach, Brennan asked Cooper to do it.

Cooper led Lansing Catholic Central to the region title and was named Lansing State Journal coach of the year. "They were a rag-tag team," Brennan said. "And they would skate through a brick wall for him."

•••

Cooper coached a few other local teams, including taking the Fraser, Mich., Metro Jets to the Tier II national title. But he wasn't getting paid much, and even with his law practice, he wondered how long he'd coach.

Then came Kelly Chase, a former Blues wing who has known Cooper since they were teen­agers. He talked Cooper into moving to Texarkana to coach the junior NAHL Bandits.

"I was like, 'You're just settling parking tickets as an attorney,' " Chase said. "Why don't you make an impact in hockey, because that's what you love doing.' "

The Bandits played in a rodeo barn, which often welcomed cats and mice. During heavy rain, water leaked onto the ice. The team often had to travel 21/2 hours each way to practice in Little Rock, Ark., Cooper sometimes driving a nine-seat Suburban.

"He wheeled and dealed," said Kim Cannon, part of Cooper's five-person Bandits staff. "He sold sponsorships, he handled all the money, was a ticket seller. … He designed the jerseys, helped design the logo. When I say he worked his way up, he worked."

The Bandits lost in the 2005 playoffs to a Texas Tornado team backed by now-Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. In 2006 they moved to St. Louis and won the NAHL championship in 2007 and '08 under Cooper. "He's got a certain swagger," said Mike Murray, Cooper's captain in St. Louis. "We always called him 'J.C.,' Jesus Christ, walking on water. He's just the man all around. You wanted to win for him."

Cooper found ways to get the Bandits players to buy into a team concept. There was no greater example than in one of the title-clinching games.

One of Cooper's captains, defenseman Phil Rauch, had broken a heel in the middle of the season, putting him out for the year. But before the championship game, Rauch found his jersey hanging in his stall. Cooper went to a seven-defensemen lineup he still uses today with the Lightning, allowing him to double shift star forward Patrick Maroon (now with the Ducks) and keep Rauch as the extra defenseman. Rauch took a shift near the end of the game and got to hoist the Robertson Cup.

"When he told me I was playing, it was instant tears," Rauch said. "I'll never forget that one."

•••

Cooper went from there to Green Bay of the junior USHL and the Lightning's AHL affiliate. He won league titles in his second season with each team. Green Bay president Brendan Bruss said, "Winning doesn't follow him around. He knows how to win."

When Cooper got hired by the Lightning to replace fired Guy Boucher in spring 2013, he caught up with Riccio, who worked for 17 seasons in business operations with the Jets.

"He said, 'I have a style. I don't know if it's going to work in the NHL, but I know it's worked to get me to this point, and I'm going to stick to that style,' " Riccio said. "It's a great story of a guy believing in his system."

Though Cooper has adapted to the NHL, he uses a lot of his tenets. He allows players freedom on the ice, preferring to put "best on best" than tinker too much with line matchups. Captain Steven Stamkos said Cooper emphasizes his team's strengths. He'll collaborate. He has an open-door policy for his office. Cooper said convincing players is similar to convincing a jury.

After the Lightning clinched its Cup final berth Friday, he got a special verdict from an old judge: "The man from Prince George is now the King," Brennan texted. "Only 20 percent of all players make the finals. Now you're one."

Advertisement