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Meet the spirit behind Lightning coach Jon Cooper's annual fishing event

Jon Cooper visited cancer patient Tony Colton at All Children's Hospital July 23. It was the last time he saw Tony, who died July 30. [Courtesy of Jon Cooper]
Jon Cooper visited cancer patient Tony Colton at All Children's Hospital July 23. It was the last time he saw Tony, who died July 30. [Courtesy of Jon Cooper]
Published Sep. 28, 2017

FORT LAUDERDALE - As Jon Cooper flips through his iPhone photos, each elicits an emotional response.

Cooper smiles at the one from a fishing trip June 12. The Lightning coach had surprised Tony Colton, 17, by sending a limo to pick him up from Sarasota and take him for a day on the water in St. Pete. Cooper brought his 7-year-old son Johnny. Former Lightning center Brian Boyle also joined. There's an image of a smiling Colton and a huge snook he snagged.

"Tony caught all the big fish," Cooper said.

It was the last time Cooper went fishing with Colton, who died July 30 after a courageous, seven-year battle with cancer.

Colton was the inspiration for Cooper's "Coop's Catch for the Kids," a charity fishing event in Tampa that raised $60,000 for pediatric cancer last October. Colton spoke at the event, which is co-sponsored by Dick Vitale's "V Foundation," then took turns fishing on Cooper and center Tyler Johnson's boat.

Colton won't be there for Tuesday, Oct. 3 for this year's event but his spirit remains, having touched a lot of people in Tampa Bay, especially the Lightning.

"It's going to be a different fishing experience, that's for sure," Johnson said. "And I'm sure (Colton) will still be a presence."

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Cooper met Colton in June 2015 at the Sneaker Soiree in Tampa, a community event to honor excellence in sports at all levels.

Cooper's Lightning was coming off a run to the Stanley Cup Final. But he was struck by the poise and presence of Colton, a teenager battling a cancer called undifferentiated sarcoma.

"I was really drawn to him," Cooper said. "Just his personality and how he spoke."

They exchanged numbers, forging a friendship that brought him closer to his favorite team, the Lightning. When treatments allowed, Colton attended games, a regular visitor in the dressing room.

Colton even suited up and joined Johnson and Boyle on the ice after one practice. "Right from the get-go, I knew this kid was something special," Johnson said. "He was never a guy who wanted to say, 'Why me?' He never wanted your sympathy, just wanted to talk to you, be your friend. He even talked about kids that were battling from different things, how upset he was and how he was trying to help them, even though he was probably going through something worse. He was just selfless. There's not enough people in the world like Tony."

Colton raised money for pediatric cancer, including $50,000 he was awarded as the Lightning's Community Hero. But Cooper wanted to do more. Months before meeting Colton, Cooper's father-in-law, Steve Novak, died from esophageal cancer.

"This is my way of helping. I can't get in a lab and look at enzymes and genes," Cooper said, "but if I can raise money to make that happen, it's the least I can do."

Cooper reached out to Vitale, whose annual galas have raised $21 million for pediatric cancer research (you can donate here . Vitale quickly agreed to be the keynote speaker and offer the V Foundation's support. Colton had been a fixture at Vitale's galas, speaking at his last one in May.

"He was one of the most courageous young kids I've ever met in my life," Vitale said. "It just crushed me to see the pain he was going through. No child should suffer like that."

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Cooper saw the suffering first-hand on his final two visits at All Children's Hospital.

The most recent came July 23, seven days before Colton passed away. Colton was bedridden, but didn't want a picture with him lying down. He pulled himself up. Cooper FaceTimed Johnson and wing Ryan Callahan so they could say hello, not knowing it was also goodbye.

"To be honest, I didn't know it was quite how bad it was," Johnson said. "I could tell he was struggling a little bit. I was just praying and thought he was going to keep going."

Cooper knows Tuesday will be emotional, calling it a "day of fishing and giving." Like last year, there will be between 25-30 boats, with donors getting paired with a Lightning player or two. For Cooper, it's about raising money and giving kids a better quality of life, an experience like Colton reeling in snook on that surprise June outing.

"I don't know how long I'll be coaching hockey or how long I will have the ability to have a mic in front of me. But when I do, I want to put it to good use," Cooper said. "To be able to find any way to make the next Tony Colton's life better, that's our mission."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampbay.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.