TAMPA — Jon Cooper knows Pat Maroon, and not just in the sense that coaches know veteran players around the league.
Maroon and Cooper started their careers together in Texarkana, Texas about 15 years ago. Cooper coached Maroon in the North American Hockey League when the winger was 17.
“He barely had hair on his face and now he has a full man beard,” Cooper said. “We’ve found our way back to each other.”
Maroon, whose third-period goal gave the Lightning a two-goal advantage in its 5-2 season-opening victory over Florida Thursday night, joined the Lightning this offseason as the player who has previously won the Stanley Cup.
No team has won without a previous winner in 25 years, a state Cooper cites adding it may or may not be coincidence.
The path from the NAHL was not a smooth one for Maroon.
“It’s been a heck of a run,” he said. “I would say I took the long route to get to where I am now, but it worked out in the end.”
That long route involved being dismissed from a team for which he was the leading scorer. Maroon had scored five of the Adirondack Phantom’s 19 goals when he got a call from then-Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren saying he’d been dismissed.
It was worse than being cut, because Maroon couldn’t find his own next step. He was stuck staying with family and looking for ice to work out on.
“You kinda look in the mirror and you call your family and ask them what is going on,” Maroon said. “But you really don’t have the answers.”
Why he was dismissed was never entirely clear and was a combination of things: conditioning, talk of nights out, sending a message to an undisciplined team.
“When you hear things and different things go on, and your team’s losing down there you get frustrated and you kinda pick on a player,” Maroon said, “and I was the guy.”
Maroon’s dismissal reverberated around the AHL team for it’s remaining three years in upstate New York. He is now its most successful alum, along with Blues teammate Brayden Schenn. They are the only two to establish consistent NHL careers after leaving the Adirondack Phantoms and the only two to win the Stanley Cup.
Of course, it didn’t feel that way at the time. Sitting at a relative’s home in New Jersey, Maroon thought his career was over. Why would a team take a risk on him, now?
But a team did. Maroon was traded to Anaheim and sent to Syracuse (then the Ducks’ affiliate, while the Lightning’s team was in Norfolk, Va.). He made his NHL debut with two games at the start of the next season. He scored in his first game against his old team, making a statement with a little extra celebration.
That was nine years ago, though. After eight full seasons in the NHL, Maroon says while the memories of his departure from the Phantoms aren’t good ones, there are no hard feelings. There’s neither bitterness, nor an edge in his voice as he says it.
This is a part of his story, but it’s in his past. His present is very different.
“Anaheim took a chance on me and it worked out well,” Maroon said. “I’ve certainly come a long way from being sent home to the Stanley Cup.”
Maroon knows what it’s like to come close to the Cup; Anaheim lost in the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Now, he knows what it’s like to win the Cup. That’s what he brings to the Lightning.
It might be coincidence that no team has won the Cup without a previous winner (St. Louis’ previous winner was Oskar Sundqvist, who played a game in each of the first two rounds on Pittsburgh’s 2016 Cup run). But Cooper believes experience helps.
“There are a few guys in that room that have played in a Stanley Cup Final but have never been able to get across the finish line,” he said. “Pat’s one of those guys that did get across the finish line and was a big contributor.”
So what did Maroon learn about the difference between being close and winning?
That it’s mostly mental. Winning the Stanley Cup is physically exhausting. Every series is exhausting and they just keep coming.
“It’s the mental part of it where you go into Game 7s and it’s who’s hungry,” Maroon said. “The skill is not going to take over, it’s the heart, it’s what’s inside you, believing in yourself.”
Each step gets harder and the antidote to the grind is also mental.
“Just believe in yourself, believe in the guys in here,” Maroon said. “Make sure you’re still having fun, relaxing, enjoying the game you love playing.”