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Interesting: Second time's a charm for Lightning's Jon Cooper

Jon Cooper and the Norfolk Admirals celebrate winning the 2012 Calder Cup Trophy in Cooper's second season with the team. [John Wright]
Published Jan. 4, 2015

OTTAWA — The "most interesting man in hockey" sat at a table in a Green Bay bar, flanked by six women.

It was 2010 and Jon Cooper, then coach of the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, was filming a series of promotional videos for the team. It used a playful spin off the Dos Equis beer commercials, with the theme song in the background. Much like actor Jonathan Goldsmith, dubbed by the Mexican brewery as "the most interesting man in the world," Cooper wore a black sport coat and white shirt, unbuttoned at the top. He laughed; he smiled.

"Losing?" Cooper said, shrugging incredulously at the camera. "That's for the other guys."

There is merit to the message. The Lightning coach, 47, has won at every level, and for some reason, his second season always has been special. Cooper's teams won the championship in his Year 2 with the North American Hockey League's St. Louis Bandits, with Green Bay and with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals. So it should come as little surprise that Cooper, in his second full season in Tampa Bay, has the Lightning on a title track, among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps there's a reason. Unlike the sparkling "magic" dust Cooper blows out of his hands at the end of the Gamblers commercials, he said there's not one secret for his success. In each place he has been, including Tampa, he has established a culture in the first year, brought in his kind of players -- dubbed "Cooper Troopers" by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman -- and found ways to communicate with and motivate each one.

Several of Cooper's Norfolk stars are with the Lightning, which has many characteristics of his previous title-winning teams: the right blend of young players and veterans who are sold on a system and backed by a stout goaltender.

Can Cooper repeat the feat?

"You need to have synergy throughout the organizaton from top to bottom. That's what we had in Norfolk, and we have that here in Tampa," Cooper said. "Is that going to result in a Stanley Cup championship? We hope so. It's really hard to do. We've been fortunate that it's happened to us in the last three places we've been."

Cooper chuckled: "Hopefully, the fourth time, the same thing happens."

There has been luck along the way, and serendipitous signs, such as his children born the day before he won titles in St. Louis and Green Bay.

But Gamblers president Brendan Bruss said the winning is more than a coincidence.

"People say winning just follows him around, and I know there's a reason for it," Bruss said. "Nobody gets lucky that many times. Winning doesn't follow him around. He knows how to win."

•••

Bruss said Cooper was not the "safe choice" when he hired him in 2008.

Cooper was a relative unknown, coaching in the NAHL, just a few years removed from his days as a defense attorney. The Gamblers were struggling, requiring a re-build after winning just 13 games the season before. They needed a coach who could connect to the fan base.

Scott Brand, the head of referees in the NAHL, sent Bruss an email about Cooper.

"You've got to take a look at this guy," he wrote.

While most candidates bring in a binder with coaching plans, Cooper had no notes. He just talked. Bruss said Cooper had that "it" factor.

"The confidence was magnetic," Bruss said. "Our team needed swagger. Jon exudes swagger."

The Gamblers also needed players. Cooper, who signed his contract two days before the USHL draft, made a couple big draft-day deals, acquiring defenseman Dave Makowski, who played for him in St. Louis, and picks that would turn into key contributors in forward Reed Seckel and goalie Reid Ellingson.

"It was almost like a feeling," Bruss said. "He literally had a sense for a kind of guy, he'd say, 'This guy is a Gambler.' "

The Gamblers won 39 games in Cooper's first season, producing the largest one-year point jump in league history, but lost in the second round of the playoffs. In year two, Green Bay struggled out of the gate. The team was good, just not clicking. It needed a spark. So after a blowout loss to Omaha, Cooper told the team to go to a local high school football field that night. The players showed up, expecting to be running as punishment, saw no coaches, but a note Cooper left hanging from a pylon.

The pointed message: "This is what it's like when we show up and you don't, — see you at 2:30 for practice."

"We won 15 in a row after that," said Lightning video coordinator Brian Garlock, who has worked with Cooper since St. Louis.

Islanders center Anders Lee, who played for Cooper in Green Bay, said he had a special way to "get the most out of guys."

"He keeps things light, but at the same time, he always keeps you on your toes, always expects more of you," Lee said. "He's always challenging you and you want to rise to the challenge for him."

The Gamblers did just that in the Clark Cup Final, when they trailed Fargo 2-0 in a best-of-five series. Cooper said sometimes you need a "trigger moment," and that came after the Fargo goalie Ryan Massa scored an empty-net goal in Game 2. Massa then dropped to his knees, threw his glove in the air and pretended to shoot it with his stick. "Cooper made that a big story with the team, and it was like, 'Karma is going to take care of everything,' " Bruss said.

"(Cooper) said, 'We've got them right where we want them,' " Lee said.

The Gamblers were 40 seconds away from getting swept, with a Fargo TV station already pronouncing them champions when Lee scored the tying goal. They won it in triple overtime, then took the next two to clinch the championship. For the second straight time, Cooper took the title trophy to the hospital.

Cooper's wife, Jessie, gave birth to their twin daughters, Julia and Josephine, now 6, the day before he won the Robertson Cup in St. Louis. The day before Game 5 in the Clark Cup final, Jessie had their son, Jonathan, now 4.

"That was the big thing when we went to Norfolk, everyone was begging for it to happen again," Cooper said. "So it's a good thing we won the Calder Cup, or we'd have more kids."

Sorry Lightning fans, Jessie isn't currently pregnant.

•••

Cooper planned on staying in Green Bay for a long time (hence, the commercials making him the team's brand).

But Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois was looking for a coach for Norfolk. BriseBois was going over his requirements with an agent friend one day — a great communicator, a teacher, a coach who builds relationships beyond the typical player/coach.

The agent responded, "I know that guy."

Cooper is a big believer in "culture beats strategy," and, like Green Bay, established a new one in Norfolk during the first season. While Cooper had less control over player procurement in pro hockey, Norfolk acquired more "Cooper Troopers" in year two, including forward P.C. Labrie and defenseman J.P. Cote. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik and Cory Conacher also made their pro debuts, mixing perfectly with the veterans.

Said Cooper: "The stars aligned."

The Admirals won a league-record 28 in a row to end the regular season, 20 in a row in regulation en route to the Calder Cup. Cooper said that streak was the most gratifying but also the easiest coaching job he ever has done.

"By the time that streak was 10-12 games, the team practically coached itself," Cooper said.

As BriseBois wanted, Cooper's relationships with players were unique. He joined them in singing their team song, We are Young by Fun, on the team bus following wins. The next year, in Syracuse, Cooper set up a team bowling league, with each picking — um — creative uniforms.

"I've never seen a team that close," said defenseman Mark Barberio, now with the Lightning.

•••

Cooper admits he has had to adapt since making the jump to the NHL. There's a lot more pre-game preparation, more use of video. In such a professional setting, some methods he used with teenagers might not work with 30-year-old millionaires.

"Less singing," Barberio quipped.

But Cooper still keeps things light, often getting players to laugh during breaks in practice. He's very approachable and collaborative, players often coming to his office.

"He's matured as a coach from his first year, but his style hasn't changed that much," Barberio said. "He's still the same 'Coop.' "

There's plenty of "Cooper Troopers," from Johnson to Palat and Radko Gudas. BriseBois describes Cooper's type of player as mentally tough, paying the price, putting team first.

"For the most part, it's the same thing Yzerman likes," BriseBois said. "That's why the change of command is working."

•••

Cooper said he still gets razzed about those commercials he did for the Gamblers.

There are three online — on coaching, fighting and winning — and a fourth on officials that's not ("It's like, 'The only whistles I want to hear are from the ladies,' " Cooper said).

Cooper said he didn't write the scripts.

"He directed them," Bruss quipped. "They're so funny, and totally him."

When Cooper interviewed in Tampa for the Norfolk job back in 2010, he remembered BriseBois finishing the 2 1/2 hour session with one last question.

"Are you really the most interesting man in hockey?"

Cooper laughed, stunned BriseBois found those clips on YouTube. "Yeah," Cooper told them. "That stuff doesn't go away."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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