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His path was unusual, but there is one constant in Jon Cooper’s career

John Romano | The Lightning coach took criticism for last season’s flop, but he continues to win at a near-unprecedented pace in the NHL.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, back center, reacts after a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in August in Toronto.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, back center, reacts after a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in August in Toronto. [ NATHAN DENETTE | The Canadian Press via AP ]
Published Sept. 26, 2020

Look at John Tortorella, they all said a year ago. Look at the daggers in his eyes and hear the passion in his profanities.

This was an accusation disguised as an observation when Columbus beat Tampa Bay in the playoffs last year. The inference was Lightning coach Jon Cooper was too composed. Too low-key. Too cerebral. And, as the narrative goes, his fancy-pants team was abused by Tortorella’s less-talented but inspired troops in four consecutive games.

Look at Jon Cooper today, I say. Look at how nothing has changed, except the way everyone else is talking about him.

And now imagine his reflection in Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Amazing, isn’t it? Same coach, same man, same job. Except now the rest of the world is starting to understand what everyone in Tampa Bay’s locker room has been saying for years. For that matter, in locker rooms in Syracuse, Norfolk, Green Bay, St. Louis, Texarkana and smallish towns in Michigan before that.

You think Cooper’s demeanor played a role in last year’s postseason flameout?

Then don’t you also have to give Cooper credit for this year’s extended run?

“There was never any thought of making changes last year,” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said. “I think Coop has done a tremendous job in creating and getting us to the exact mentality we need to win a Stanley Cup. I’m very proud of him.”

Maybe it’s because, after all these years, he’s still something of an outsider. A Wall Street guy who became an attorney and then earned his first paycheck in hockey by coaching a high school team in Lansing, Mich., when a local judge asked him to take over his son’s team.

That was 20 years ago. Dallas coach Rick Bowness had already been a head coach in Winnipeg, Boston, Ottawa and New York by that time.

“Those kids would absolutely skate through a wall for him. They adored him,” said retired district court Judge Thomas Brennan Jr., who played on a rec league team with Cooper, steered court-appointed clients his way and orchestrated his hiring by Lansing Catholic High.

“He had a cockiness about him, but it was never offensive. It wasn’t arrogance. It was a swagger that you were attracted to. It was infectious with the players. He gave a bunch of high school players, who were total losers before he came along, that swagger. They went 3-17 the year before, and then Coop takes them to the (state) quarterfinals the next year.”

This is the part of the story that’s too attractive to ignore. It’s essentially the story of a walk-on coach reaching the NHL. But too many times, the details get ignored. The dues paid, the lessons learned and the wins along the way. And those wins never stopped coming.

Before he started chasing the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, Cooper had his fingerprints on the Silver Cup, the Robertson Cup, the Clark Cup and the Calder Cup. Maybe those names mean nothing to you, but they represent championships at any level of hockey you can imagine.

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Cooper, 53, moved from job to job and league to league for 14 years but was never once fired. Everywhere he went, he left a trail of victories and admirers in his wake.

“Everybody talks about his charisma and personality, and there’s no doubt they’re off the charts,” said Green Bay Gamblers president Brendan Bruss, who hired Cooper in 2008. "But what really struck me was that I never heard somebody so clearly define how to build a winning team. He wouldn’t just get the best player he could find and try to get that player to fit in a role. He knew what the roles had to be and if he didn’t think somebody would play that role, then he wouldn’t chase them.

“It sounds easy, but when you’re building a team you can sometimes get enamored with players for different reasons. And Jon is only enamored with winning.”

To be sure, Cooper has been fortunate to land in Tampa Bay. His owner is committed, and his general managers (Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois) have been stellar. He’s also had a roster full of stars in their prime.

But his track record of winning is not coincidence, and it’s not changed at all in the NHL.

His career winning percentage (total points divided by the maximum amount possible) is .645. Among coaches with at least 500 games on their resume, that’s the second-highest winning percentage in NHL history. Only the legendary Scotty Bowman is ahead of Cooper at .657.

He’s won titles everywhere he’s been, and his Lightning teams have reached the NHL’s final four in four of his first seven seasons.

So, yes, take a look at Jon Cooper again today.

Tell me what you see.

John Romano can reached be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.