DENVER — His story, once so easy to tell, is complicated now.
For the longest time, it was all about the journey. The Hallmark-esque fantasy of a lawyer who became a high school hockey coach and found himself in the NHL a little more than a dozen years later.
And then it became a whirlwind of unlikely heights. An Eastern Conference championship in his second full season, a record-breaking regular season in 2019, back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and ‘21.
And now it is somewhere in myth-making mode. A fourth trip to the Stanley Cup final with a team that is growing older, has had critical injury issues and began the year without several key parts.
So, tell me, where would you start the story of Jon Cooper?
Because, heaven knows, the day will come when the engravers at the Hockey Hall of Fame are bound to ask.
For now, let’s just begin in the place where he is most comfortable. In a locker room, in a sweatshirt, in full inspiring mode. This is where Cooper excels. Where his talents shine brightest.
Yes, it’s true, his teams have been so talented that Cooper has been unfairly left out of too many conversations about the NHL’s reigning geniuses of X’s and O’s. How else to explain that a coach who has dominated the last decade has, incredibly, never won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Has, in fact, rarely been in the top five of balloting.
What the voters don’t see, what they don’t grasp, is that Cooper is a master at getting the most out of his players. You think it’s coincidence that before he won a pair of Stanley Cups, Cooper also lifted the Silver Cup, the Robertson Cup, the Clark Cup and the Calder Cup?
He has won, literally, everywhere he has gone. On every level, in every crappy minor league outpost. Are you telling me Cooper just happened to have the most talented players every stop along the way?
“There’s so much talent all around the NHL, you’ll never have a team that goes to the Cup three years in a row without an incredible coach,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who has been with Cooper since their American Hockey League days in Norfolk in 2012. “It seems like he always makes the right adjustments, he understands the vibe of the team, when to get on us, when to be a little easier on us.
“He’s been a huge part of these three years.”
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They have a game plan for everything. Not just the next opponent on the ice, but the next speech in the locker room. Who is going to give it? What will be the tone? Should the players run the meeting? How do we keep them engaged?
Cooper and his staff of assistants — Derek Lalonde, Jeff Halpern, Rob Zettler and Frantz Jean — pay as much attention to the mood of the room as the play on the ice. Because, in a way, they are interchangeable. A team united in spirit is also united in devotion.
And though many of the faces have remained the same, the themes change from year to year. Having won a Stanley Cup can present its own unique challenges in terms of motivation and contentment moving forward. You don’t begin 2022 with the same incentives as 2021.
So the message gets tweaked. It’s no longer about putting your name on the Cup, it’s about creating a legacy.
Are we still hungry?
This was the question Cooper posed again and again this year, from preseason meetings to postgame celebrations.
“His message does not get old, and I think that’s the biggest key. He keeps things fresh,” Lalonde said. “It’s the approach of culture over structure. We spend just as much time talking about how to get the most out of the room as we do talking about X’s and O’s. Do we need to talk to Player A? Do we need to talk to Player B? Do we need to get (player) leadership involved?
“I think that’s where people don’t give him enough credit for how he manages. There’s a reason he’s the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and we continue to win. His message stays fresh, and that is absolutely a credit to how he handles the group.”
We’ve had our share of personality-filled coaches and managers in Tampa Bay over the last couple of decades. Tony Dungy oozed compassion and sincerity. Joe Maddon was hipper than thou. Jon Gruden was cocky, John Tortorella was intense and Bruce Arians was the guy you most wanted to drink with.
Publicly, Cooper is harder to pin down. I’ve used this word in the past when describing him, and I think it’s still apropos. Cooper can be smug. He can be patronizing, arrogant, haughty and dismissive. And yet he can walk into a room of 100 diverse people and charm the dickens out of every last one of them.
It’s almost comical to consider in retrospect, but there was speculation outside of the organization about whether Cooper should be let go after the first-round collapse against Columbus in 2019. When Julien BriseBois was asked this week how hard it was to stick with his coach after that disappointment, Cooper chimed in before the general manager could even respond.
“I’d actually like to know the answer to this,” Cooper said to laughter.
In the end, the record cannot be ignored. Four Stanley Cup finals in nine full seasons on the job. The second-best points percentage in NHL history among coaches with at least 500 regular-season games, and Cooper’s mark (.650) is not far off the legendary Scotty Bowman (.657).
“I’m probably a little bit better coach now than I was when I first came into the league. And part of it is from losing. You find out why you lost and what happened,” Cooper said. “Some of it’s because we’ve won and you find out what has worked. The same thing doesn’t work with every team, but there are some basic principles that we have … that give you the effort you’ve seen in these Cup runs.
“But I’m not going to sit here and say it’s complete rocket science.”
No, but it is impressive. No matter where the story begins.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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