UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Well before he coached the Lightning to the Stanley Cup, Jon Cooper spent some of his formative years on Long Island.
It’s been more than three decades since Cooper attended college at Hofstra, just a 10-minute walk to Nassau Coliseum. But he still remembers attending WrestleMania II there, seeing Frank Sinatra perform and watching Islanders games when they were just removed from their glory days of four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83) and the arena was referred to as Fort Neverlose.
“Because it was so close, we would hop the fence and we were there,” Cooper said. “We used to go to games all the time and have a blast in the Coliseum. So I have deep-rooted memories of that place from the mid- to late-80s until now. So it’s funny how it’s kind of come full circle.”
Now, Cooper’s Lightning will be trying to shut the Coliseum down.
The Islanders, who will move into a new arena at Belmont Park next season, stand in the way of Tampa Bay’s goal of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. The semifinal series is tied at one game apiece entering Game 3 Thursday at Nassau Coliseum..
The 49-year-old building is the last of the old hockey barns of yesteryear. Despite a recent renovation, it’s still intimate — its 13,900-seat capacity is the NHL’s smallest — and loud, a far cry from from today’s cavernous arenas built on club suites, sound systems and sensory overload.
“I used to sit up there in the upper deck and cheer for (the Islanders), and it was just a great atmosphere,” Cooper said. “That little time that they moved from Nassau (to Barclays Center in Brooklyn from 2015-20), it was kind of a sad time because we liked going back there. They’re passionate fans, and you have to love that. It’s a cool environment to be in. I’m looking forward to it.”
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Cooper arrived at Hofstra as a wide-eyed teenager, far from his home in British Columbia. He had left a prep school in Saskatchewan well-known for its hockey pedigree. In fact, current Islanders coach Barry Trotz played for the Notre Dame Hounds a few years before Cooper’s time there.
But Cooper went to Hofstra to play lacrosse, not hockey. And the stars aligned for him quickly. A coaching change led to a number of transfers, so Cooper played a lot as a freshman, even though his experience was entirely with the indoor game — box lacrosse, as it’s called in Canada — so he had to learn the outdoor field game on the fly.
“Things kind of worked out for me a bit,” Cooper said. “It was good, because I got to play as a freshman. I think that would have been tougher on me if I couldn’t. So that gave me confidence — confidence in school, confidence in lacrosse, confidence in social settings, confidence living on my own — that I was able to come in as a freshman and be able to have some success.”
Cooper’s coach, John Danowski, said Cooper adapted quickly.
“When he came to Hofstra, he came 3,000 miles to go to school on a chance,” Danowski said. “I mean there was no guarantee. The coach that recruited him left, and now there’s a new coach. But from day one, and I mean this, from day one with his class he just fit right in. But he was always his own person.”
The indoor lacrosse game that Cooper played growing up was very much like hockey. It’s 5-on-5. You check with your sticks, hit opponents into the boards and battle for the ball in the corners.
“All those things that you get in hockey, you get in lacrosse, you’re just doing it on your feet,” Cooper said. “There’s movement, there’s screens, there’s give-and-gos. And there’s a mentality that if you’re going to score in lacrosse, you have to play in the trenches and it’s very much like hockey, so I was trained mentally that way from playing both sports.”
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One of Cooper’s old Notre Dame classmates, Brad Lauer, joined the Islanders during Cooper’s sophomore year at Hofstra, and Lauer regularly left tickets for Cooper. Through Lauer, Cooper formed friendships with other Islanders such as Derek King, Mick Vukota and Jeff Finley. Cooper would pick their brains about the ins and outs of NHL hockey.
“I got to know a ton of guys,” Cooper said. “It was just a great group of guys.”
“I would see (Cooper) the next day at practice and ask him, ‘What did you do last night?’” Danowski said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, you know, I went to see the Kings and the Islanders. I was very jealous, because I couldn’t afford tickets at that time.”
Lauer would later become an assistant coach under Cooper with the Lightning. Tampa Bay just drafted Finley’s son, Jack, with their top pick last year.
“He was a good lacrosse player,” said Lauer, who attended Cooper’s games. “I don’t think he was a very good hockey player, but I think he really enjoyed the hockey part of the game. I think if you ask him, he’d probably wish he got to play at a higher level.
“But he was able to make connections in the hockey world and that got his foot in the door. Whether it was just coming to the rink and watching our practices in Long Island, he was always one of those guys who wanted to enjoy the game for what it was.”
Meanwhile, Cooper’s continued to grow as a lacrosse player. He transitioned from attack to midfield and had a six-goal game against UMBC his senior season that remains vivid in his mind because it occurred during one of his parents’ annual 3,000-mile trips to see him play.
“Players say they’re in the zone, but until you’re in it, it’s hard to explain,” Cooper said. “But everything I was touching was going in.”
Cooper asked Danowski if he could play club hockey during his senior season. Knowing how much the sport meant to him, the coach gave his blessing.
“It was awesome,” said Cooper, who missed playing club hockey games at the Coliseum by a year. “I loved it.”
By the end of his college lacrosse career, Cooper ranked fifth in program history in goals (74) and ninth in points (99).
He earned a degree in business administration in 1989 and went to work on Wall Street after graduation. He then went to law school before discovering a love of coaching and working his way up from high school through juniors and the minors to the NHL.
Even after all these years, Cooper said the Coliseum still holds a special place for him.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “You go from watching your buddies play to end up being the opposing coach there.”
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