Lightning coach Jon Cooper enters COVID protocol

Assistant Derek Lalonde served as Tampa Bay’s head coach for Tuesday’s game in Las Vegas.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, back left, looks on from the bench during a game against the Kings on Dec. 14. Assistant Derek Lalonde is pictured to Cooper's right.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, back left, looks on from the bench during a game against the Kings on Dec. 14. Assistant Derek Lalonde is pictured to Cooper's right. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021|Updated Dec. 22, 2021

Lightning assistant coaches received a text message from head coach Jon Cooper about 2-1/2 hours before Tuesday night’s game in Vegas that he wouldn’t be joining them.

After dodging the COVID outbreak that’s shut down organizations and created uncertainty concerning the season, the first person among Lightning players and staff to enter the NHL’s COVID protocol was their head coach.

The team announced the development less than 90 minutes before the scheduled puck drop against the Golden Knights. Assistant Derek Lalonde ran the team’s forward lines and essentially served as head coach.

After they were dominated for most of the first two periods, the Lightning rallied from two goals down to beat the Golden Knights 4-3 at T-Mobile Arena. After the game, captain Steven Stamkos presented Lalonde with a game puck and joked, “Probably not the way you envisioned your first win.”

“No, (it wasn’t),” Lalonde said after the game. “Getting absolutely killed in the middle of the second period and being on our heels, feeling like we’re down 8-1 when we’re only down 3-1 and then getting all the way back, and just the pandemic and turning this around at 4:30 in the afternoon, probably not the way I envisioned it.

“But again, it’s about the guys,” Lalonde continued. “It’s a credit to the guys. This was just going about our business again, from our group.”

The game was the only one of the 10 originally scheduled for Tuesday that was played and was the last before Christmas, as the league decided to begin its holiday break one day early amid a rash of COVID-19 cases that have shut down teams and postponed games.

Games are scheduled to resume Monday. The Lightning’s next game is slated for Tuesday against the Canadiens at Amalie Arena.

The league enacted stricter protocols on Saturday in an attempt to curb the spike in cases, including a return to daily testing (players and staff were tested once every three days), virtual meetings and restriction to travel parties on the road. The new protocols will be in effect through at least Jan. 7.

Twenty-six of the NHL’s 32 teams have at least one member of their organization in the protocol.

The Lightning are a completely vaccinated team, and Stamkos said earlier Tuesday that, to his knowledge, “a majority” of players received booster shots when they were made available through the team this season.

Cooper was asked Sunday how his team had avoided the virus as the league shut down around it.

“It’s perplexing,” he said. “I don’t have an answer for it, because we have played a bunch of teams that either had it before or after it and somehow we have been able to slide through.”

Following Tuesday’s game, Stamkos said the virus was bound to hit the Lightning, given the way it has spread around the league. Two Vegas players, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forward Evgenii Dadonov, entered the COVID protocol before the game.

“The reality is it was probably coming at any moment with what’s going on around the league,” Stamkos said. “Vegas got hit (Tuesday). We get hit with with our coach. I think you have to expect some more here in the next coming days just with how it’s gone around the league where one or two guys get it and then it spreads pretty quick.

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“So we have to continue to be diligent and just go with the flow, like we have the past couple of years.”

• • •

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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