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For Lightning's Cooper, it's all in the Christmas cards

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper with his wife, Jessie, 5-year old twin daughters Julia (top left) and Josie, and 3-year old son, Jonny, in their home in Tampa.
Published Dec. 25, 2013

TAMPA

Where are the cards, Jon Cooper kept asking. The Lightning coach was trying to explain how much fun he and his family have around the Christmas holiday, and he wanted a visual aid, the Christmas cards he and his wife, Jessie, have sent out every year of their eight-year marriage. These aren't ordinary cards. Cooper designs them with funny pictures and sayings. "Totally his thing," Jessie said, "and he loves doing it."

So, there is Cooper and Jessie on one card, smiling big while sitting outside on a ratty couch in the snow while holding their newborn twins, Julia and Josie. The card says, "We're dreaming of a white trash Christmas."

Another card, sent one of the two years Cooper coached Tampa Bay's farm team in Norfolk, Va., shows the family riding a Zamboni on the beach. This year's card, the first since Cooper was named Lightning coach, excitedly exclaims — well, they went out late and Cooper wants to keep it to himself so as not to spoil the surprise.

Don't misinterpret the irreverence. Cooper, it seems, can't really help it.

It doesn't diminish that Christmas always is an important time for the family, not only because of what it represents but because it has been a respite for Cooper from the demands of whatever team he is coaching, and a day for him to enjoy his family.

This year, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement, the NHL shut down Tuesday through Thursday; no practice, no travel, no games, guaranteeing three days for Cooper to celebrate with Jessie, daughters Josie and Julia, 5, and son Jonny, 3.

It is a nice bonus for a family still settling into their South Tampa home and just beginning to put down roots after a whirlwind of relocations. Cooper's career the past eight years has had stops in Texarkana, Texas; St. Louis; Green Bay, Wis.; Norfolk; and Syracuse, N.Y., where he coached the Lightning's farm team before being hired by Tampa Bay in March.

"The fact that the kids get to see their dad and he gets to be here and we get to have time together is huge," Jessie said.

"For a couple days it's all about your family," Cooper, 46, said, "especially at a time now the kids are getting old enough to understand what's going on."

• • •

To completely understand a Cooper family Christmas you have to understand the coach's feelings about the holiday.

"He just loves it," Jessie said. "The more decorating the better, the gaudier the better, and he loves that I let the kids put whatever they want to on the tree."

"Christmas music, the lights, the festivities, the parties, everybody seems to be always in a good mood," Cooper said. "I enjoy it so much that it makes those first few weeks after New Year just the dog days."

It is difficult to imagine a more action-packed and food-centric celebration, or as Cooper calls it, "Three days laced with fun."

• Christmas Eve: The kids make chocolate chip and M&M's cookies for Santa. After putting the kids to bed, Cooper and Jessie enjoy their annual fondue dinner of meat and vegetable tempura. After dinner, Cooper wraps his presents and puts all the family's presents under the tree.

• Christmas Day: After the adults toast with Brandy Alexanders, stockings are unpacked and presents opened before a massive breakfast of eggs, sausage, ham, bacon and mushrooms. Naps are next before Jessie starts preparing a dinner of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, a Christmas recipe from Cooper's mom, Christine. Jessie makes it every year.

"Even when (the kids) were really little, I decided we're going to do the holiday," Jessie said. "We're going to get them dressed up in their Christmas clothes, and I'm going to make the dinner, even if no one else is here but the two adults and the three kids because it does make it feel kind of Chistmasey."

One year the Yorkshire pudding went up in flames.

"You have to put oil in those (baking) cup things, but you can't put too much oil, and I guess she went overboard," Cooper said. "That's when she started screaming and I came running in and the whole oven is blazing flames, so we put that out."

• Day after Christmas: Recover from the previous two days.

• • •

Jessie every year puts out a ceramic snow village with buildings given every year by her parents. The buildings are symbolic. One, a replica of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, commemorates one of the two Christmases the family spent in St. Louis.

But nothing is as necessary or important as getting the cards out on time and with the appropriate message.

Cooper said he took that job after Jessie sent out picture cards with antlers superimposed on his head.

"I was mortified," Cooper said with a laugh, though he liked the idea of sending cards that "show our personalities a little bit."

Here's the problem: "They actually have taken on a life of their own," Cooper said. "There's a little bit of pressure to it. Now, people expect big things."

As big as a Cooper family Christmas.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

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