A seating chart, the 13 Fellows and Jon Cooper’s time at Cooley Law School

Before he became a two-time Stanley Cup winner, the Lightning coach played slot receiver on one of his law school’s flag football teams.
Jon Cooper (top row, far left) was a slot wide receiver on the 13 Fellows flag football team while at Cooley Law School.
Jon Cooper (top row, far left) was a slot wide receiver on the 13 Fellows flag football team while at Cooley Law School. [ Courtesy of Robert Green Jr. ]
Published June 18, 2022|Updated June 19, 2022

TAMPA — John Scott has saved every seating chart from his 40-year career as a professor at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and in 2017 he wanted to get one signed. It was from an evidence class in 1996, and he finally found a way to track down the student who had sat in seat No. 119: Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

One of Scott’s students at the time, Bruce Carter, had mentioned during an office meeting that he knew a Lightning connection that could lead to Cooper. In October, during an event at Tampa sports bar Hattricks, Carter walked in with Scott’s sheet and presented it to Cooper.

Cooper posed for a picture, pointing an index finger above the seat with his name on it, Carter recalled, and signed the chart with a silver marking pen, “It pays to sit in the back.”

“It almost looked like it was on parchment paper,” Carter said. “It was kind of thin, worn, that type of thing, and I really was nervous that something was going to happen to that treasure that (Scott) held on for so long.”

Carter videotaped the exchange and sent the clip to Scott before returning the chart to him at Cooley’s campus in Riverview. For now, the oversized sheet of paper sits tucked into one of Scott’s drawers. Maybe one day, Scott said, he’ll make a copy, frame it and present it to Cooper after he has won another Stanley Cup.

Scott keeps all his seating charts in case one of his students becomes famous, and over the last two decades — with an unorthodox trajectory from collegiate lacrosse player to public defender to two-time Stanley Cup- winning coach — that’s what Cooper, 54, has become on one level.

Before he reached that stage, Cooper was just a law student in Michigan.

He played slot receiver on the 13 Fellows flag football team. He caught the first pass of every game, a play that classmate and teammate Christian Novay said they ran even if opponents expected it. He was a men’s league basketball player who hit the winning shot. He impressed friends with his hockey knowledge and dragged some to NHL games, using his player connections to get access behind the scenes afterward.

“It was kind of like he belonged in the NHL even when he was just a law student,” former Cooley schoolmate Randy Rechs said. “Because he was in that fraternity already.”

The relationship between Cooper and Scott started during a break in one of their three-hour classes. Cooper walked down from his seat and asked Scott if he was a hockey guy because of a reference the professor had made in class. He was, Scott replied, and they chatted a few other times during the semester.

From nearly the first day of orientation, Cooper connected with a group in Section 13 of his law class, a group referred to by the school as the “Fellows,” one that included Novay, Robert Green Jr., Tom Kubinec and Scott Lautner. They decided to join the school’s flag football league. Their 13 Fellows team name was based on the section number and name of their class, his teammates said.

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They played on Michigan State’s practice field and had a playbook with a “run-and-gun”offense that Kubinec said “transformed” the league. They weren’t just handing the ball off like other teams did. The 13 Fellows lost in the championship game the first year but won two titles after that. Cooper wasn’t the fastest of the group, Novay said, but he never dropped the ball and ran strong routes.

Once, Rechs needed a fill-in player for his men’s league basketball team, and he asked Cooper — who’d never really played the game — if he could join because he was tall. Cooper agreed.

During the last timeout of a game, Rechs drew up a play where he spaced the floor and freed up space for Cooper when Cooper’s defender left him to help. Rechs drove, Cooper’s defender slid, and Cooper made the winning shot.

When they weren’t focused on coursework, the students hung out in their apartments and at bars to watch hockey games. Often, Cooper would see someone playing that he knew from high school or his youth, Rechs said.

In May 1996, Cooper told Rechs that he had 10 minutes to get ready because they were driving to Pittsburgh for a Penguins playoff game. Cooper knew someone and they could hang out with the players after the game, so they packed into Cooper’s Ford Explorer and made the trip.

Two Penguins players scored hat tricks, and Cooper’s Pittsburgh friend got them a hotel room across the street from the arena where they spent the night before driving back the next day.

“He always had the ‘in,’ " Rechs said.

Contact Andrew Crane at Follow @CraneAndrew.