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Passion takes Cooper from lawyer to Lightning coach

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper instructs center Steven Stamkos (91) during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa on Friday.
Published Mar. 31, 2013

A case can be made that Thomas E. Brennan Jr. started Jon Cooper on the path to becoming the Lightning's ninth head coach.

It was Brennan, a district court judge in Mason, Mich., who in 1999 got his young lawyer friend his first coaching gig, at Lansing, Mich., Catholic Central High, where Brennan's son was the goalie.

"The year was magical," Brennan recalled last week. "He took a ragtag group of hockey players and made them believe they could win, and they did."

They won a regional championship, to be exact, which got Cooper named coach of the year by the Lansing State Journal.

Cooper fell so in love with coaching — "I love taking 23 people who are all in different directions doing things and making them into one" — he eventually closed his law practice to pursue it full time.

Fourteen years later, Cooper, 45, is Tampa Bay's bench boss, with a 1-0-0 record after his debut Friday against the Devils.

Cooper said he did not get into coaching to reach the NHL. But success kept pushing him forward, through Junior B hockey, to Midget AAA, to junior teams in Texarkana, Texas, and St. Louis and Green Bay, Wis., to the American Hockey League, where beginning in 2010 he coached Tampa Bay affiliates in Norfolk, Va., and Syracuse, N.Y.

Cooper won North American Hockey League championships in 2007 and '08 with St. Louis, a United States Hockey League title in 2010 with Green Bay, and in 2012 led Norfolk to the Calder Cup title and a 28-game winning streak, longest by a North American pro hockey team.

"I would have been 100 percent okay if I never coached in the NHL," Cooper said. "Coming (to the Lightning) now was, 'Okay, we've done it at every level, let's go see if we can do it here.' "

•••

The story of how Cooper got into coaching has the feel of a fantasy.

A graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, Mich., Cooper was working in Brennan's court for $1,000 a month as a public defender. Cooper and Brennan were teammates on a hockey team called the Legal Eagles.

Brennan, now retired, said Cooper's nickname was "Fancy Pants" because "he was fancy with the puck and loved to score."

One day Brennan asked Cooper to coach his son's high school team. Cooper, who played growing up in Prince George, British Columbia, but was a lacrosse star at New York's Hofstra University, said why not.

"None of the guys were going to play pro hockey, but they loved the game," Cooper said, "and they had a coach who loved the game as well. We just kind of molded this thing together."

Catholic Central won its first regional title in 25 years. But for pure schmaltz, nothing beats its road trip to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

The historic home of the Maple Leafs was losing its tenant to the new Air Canada Centre, and Cooper and his assistant, Pat Murray, a former NHL player, bussed the Catholic Central kids to scrimmage at the Garden.

Sitting in the stands, Cooper said he had his epiphany.

"I just remember the feeling I had," he said. "I said, 'I'm never going to be able to play here, but to be able to coach here, what a feeling that would be.' It's just the feeling that got me going."

•••

Cooper's wife, Jessie, calls her husband "a romantic."

Cooper proposed at sunset on a dock owned by Jessie's family on Lake Mitchell in Cadillac, Mich., with a bottle of champagne and what Jessie described as "really inspired words."

Jessie, who met Cooper on a blind date, said it is exactly the kind of proposal she wanted.

"He truly watches and knows and understands people," she said. "He pays attention. He's one of the few people I know in life who really does."

That is instructive because it is one way Cooper builds such strong bonds with his players.

"Jon Cooper is a people person," said Ken Young, owner of AHL Norfolk and a Tampa resident, "and by that, I mean he gets to know his players, gets to know what really makes them tick, what their interests are, and he tries to mold the team around those interests. He understands the individual, and then he's able to bring the chemistry together to make the team."

He is extremely disciplined. Jessie said his closet "looks like a military closet."

He once scored six goals in a game for Hofstra's lacrosse team, and he studied law with the intent of becoming an agent. He is so competitive, said Brendan Bruss, president of the junior Green Bay team Cooper coached, his motto was "Play anyone, any place, any time."

"He had charisma. (He is) a good-looking guy, bright," said John Danowski, Cooper's lacrosse coach at Hofstra and now the coach at Duke. "You just knew whatever he decided to do, he was going to be successful."

It just took Cooper some time to decide what to do. About being a lawyer, Cooper recalled thinking, " 'Is this what I'm going to be doing 35 years from now?' I liked what I was doing, but I didn't love what I was doing."

Now, he said, "I love what I'm doing."

"He would have made a damn good lawyer," judge Brennan said. "He would have made a lot of money. He would have been a guy who won a lot of arguments."

Instead, he's won lots of games.

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