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How Lightning coach Jon Cooper reinvented himself

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the second period of a Nov. 18, 2017 game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders at Amalie Arena in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the second period of a Nov. 18, 2017 game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders at Amalie Arena in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Dec. 11, 2017

BRANDON — The best team in town had just wrapped up practice. The Lightning had a plane to catch, to St. Louis, where Tuesday in St. Louis begins a four-city road trip that ends at expansion Las Vegas, exclusive engagement, one show a night, unless you count the coach.

Jon Cooper was filling out a food order for the team's charter flight. Then he had to go home and pack. Then he had to drive to the airport. He's in his fifth full season as Lightning coach, but the routine doesn't have a second hand.

"But I always make it," Cooper said.

The Lightning are on the runway again, atop the NHL in wins and points in early December. There is no telling what that will mean in April, come the playoffs, but Cooper and his staff are not exactly unhappy.

(RELATED: Cory Conacher's attitude adjustment pays off.)

Granted, that has nothing to do with why, the other night at Amalie Arena, Cooper did hand puppets in the light and shadow at his news conference after the Lightning beat Winnipeg to complete a perfect 4-0 home stand after a rugged 1-3 road trip.

The Lightning is on a roll. Cooper's got his game back, after a deflating non-playoff season. The man who prides himself on being a people manager had some managing to do.

"The person I had to manage the most was myself," Cooper said. "You have to manage that you're going through a situation that you'd never been through before. Never in my hockey coaching career had a I missed the playoffs, at any level."

He smiled.

"The way last year went, we found out a lot about ourselves and our team. I found out a lot about myself. I found out that I had to re-invent myself a little bit. I think I'd gotten stale myself. I wasn't good enough.

"Right out of the gate, there wasn't a sense of urgency. How do you handle a 1A-1B goalie situation? How do you handle the injuries, leadership issues? How do you handle being in last place in the conference on Feb. 2? … It was an eye-opener for me.

"It was like the pilot light got lit. You can't stop learning. You can't stop re-inventing yourself. Because the second you do, somebody is going to pass you."

Some of the culture changes were subtle, as simple as changing the Lightning dressing room, all in the name of the collective good.

"There's no long pictures of individual players," Cooper said. "There are pictures of moments that at some point got us to the Stanley Cup or won the Stanley Cup. Everything there is team first, not me first."

There were some who thought Cooper's job would be in danger if the Lightning didn't have a great start this season. Moot point. Cooper wasn't one of those people. He thinks he's a better coach this season.

(RELATED: What the Lightning accomplished during a homestand sweep.)

"100 percent. Not even close. Of any year, including the Cup year, the team was in the best position to success right out of the gate. I don't think you become a bad coach overnight. I'm not saying I'm a good coach. But there are a lot of circumstances that come into play, and I've handled them better …"

Then he surprises you.

"What do they say? What drives you more, the happiness of winning or the fear of losing. To me, it's the fear of losing. Even now."

Cooper became Lightning coach after Guy Boucher was fired in 2013. Time has flown. The Bucs might soon be on their fourth head coach since then. Kevin Cash and the Rays are sitting on the curb, watching the future go by. Then there is the best team in town. And the best coach.

"It's going to be 2018 soon," Cooper said.

"It's easy to say it now, but how can you not Monday morning quarterback what happened last year. I look back now, and there are so many things that set me up and set our team up for future success. It was just whether we were going to learn from it. … All these lessons. Tough ones. Can you move forward? It was a driving force."

Cooper zipped his work bag for the trip.

"I'll make it," he said.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly