By Brian Schiazza
|"Brian's a gamer," a longtime NHL scout said of the Fargo Force blueliner. "Brian's a no-nonsense, game-on-the-line, all-out every shift, antagonistic player. He plays with an edge for his size, but with his speed, puck skills, gamesmanship and hockey sense, he's just got it all. He just wants it so bad." |
There is very little mystery in what defenseman Brian Cooper is all about.
"Brian's a gamer," a longtime NHL scout said of the Fargo Force blueliner. "Brian's a no-nonsense, game-on-the-line, all-out every shift, antagonistic player. He plays with an edge for his size, but with his speed, puck skills, gamesmanship and hockey sense, he's just got it all. He just wants it so bad."
But that's not all. The intellect that makes Cooper a student of the game helps him excel in the classroom.
Since age 15, Cooper has been a major blue-line presence for Fargo while maintaining exemplary grades, which helped him earn a scholarship to play at the University of Nebraska-Omaha next fall, where he plans to immerse himself in medical studies. A 3.9 grade-point average in his senior year of high school, coupled with induction into the National Honor Society, helped Cooper earn the USHL's 2011-12 Scholar-Athlete Award.
On the ice, he had six goals and 18 assists, plus a team-best plus-16 rating, in 55 regular-season games.
In his first season with the team, Fargo coach John Marks liked what he saw from Cooper.
"He's going to be successful at whatever he does, be it hockey or in the medical field," Marks said. "He's a perfectionist, is what he is. He wants things done right and done well, and he proves that with nearly everything he does."
He's also striving to get even better.
"All I know is even when you have good skills, a lot of the time your skating can always get better, your stickhandling, your passing, all your skills can always be better," said Cooper, who listed skating as both an asset and an area of improvement on his Central Scouting questionnaire. "I also know that guys are working on their skating, so I keep working on mine to make sure I have an edge over those guys."
Team captain the past season, Cooper's progression on the ice has translated into him becoming a potential gem at the 2012 NHL Draft, to be held June 22-23 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Scouts have compared him to puck-moving defensemen John-Michael Liles and Kevin Shattenkirk, with a healthy bone-rattling dose of Darius Kasparaitis and Keith Ballard.
Cooper, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, embraces that hard-hitting style; he grew to admire Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens while following fellow Alaska-born player Scott Gomez with the New Jersey Devils.
"I kind of like and understand the way Keith Ballard plays," Cooper said. "He's kind of a smaller guy like myself, and he's a great skater who gets physical, has hockey smarts. But probably my defensive hero was Scott Stevens. Watching his clips on YouTube kind of gets me fired up. How did he not give up odd-man rushes going across, even on two-on-two's, to crush a guy?"
Cooper's all-round game and academic prowess have created options for him on and off the ice. His on-ice success -- which also includes a gold medal at the 2010 World Junior A Challenge and a silver medal at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament -- have been matched by his classroom success, He cultivated an interest in the medical field after taking health-career classes in his sophomore year of high school.
"I think that my mom really appreciates it because she is a nurse back in Alaska," Cooper said. "There are so many different paths [in the medical field] where you can take one route and it can lead you to another one, or something completely different. So I kind of like having that availability where you don't have to choose one thing right away. I can major in nursing like I plan to do at Omaha, but I can specialize in anesthesia if I like. Or I can go on to med school and handle those years. There are so many things to choose from, it's amazing."
Cooper continued to make an impact on the blue line in his final season with Fargo, where he earned a second consecutive second-team USHL all-star selection.
Though his stats dipped a bit from his 2010-11 season (11 goals, 22 assists), Marks saw growth.
"Brian took a lot of pride in not getting scored on, and I think his game got more rounded this year with his maturity and understanding the position better," he said. "He'll jump up in the play, he'll go to the net, he'll compete, he'll dump the puck in and go get it. He'll forecheck his own dump-ins sometimes. I felt that there were times he tried to do things all by himself. And so we kind of had to say, 'There's a time to go and maybe try to take the bull by the horns [but] one guy can't be five (guys) all the time.' I think he learned more about moving the puck, the give-and-go, that sort of thing."
Cooper, who said Marks' old-school style was the most influential of his junior-level coaches, agreed.
"My second year was kind of where I started to grow a little more emotional about the game, more passionate about how I played, more inside myself, criticism-wise," recalled Cooper. "Going into this past season, I was much more strict on myself. I've always liked this game, but I also love winning, love competing. I think it's kind of developed over the years and I feel it's a big asset to my game."
Marks recalled a midseason game against Lincoln when he saw some of what makes Cooper's potential intriguing.
"We were killing a penalty and they were kind of going from the top of the umbrella down to the hash marks," he said. "[Cooper] read it, picked it off and took off. And a couple of guys tried to track him down while he's coming in on net, [he] made a move and shelved the puck. It was one of more outstanding goals that I have ever seen a defenseman score. His read was good, his anticipation is outstanding, and then, of course, he has the skating ability to beat people up the ice. So I just saw that maturity come where he knew when to jump, and I think that is part of his game that's really maturing."
Scouts noticed Cooper's blend of skill, skating and physicality, and he is No. 68 in Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft.
Marks, who said Cooper could be picked as high as the second round, can identify a further set of qualities that can make selecting the 18-year-old even more low-risk.
"The work ethic is No. 1," he said. "He was like that in the weight room, and with everything. Guys wanted to work out with him because he worked hard. And in practice, if he saw that there were a couple of guys that were not pushing as hard, he didn't hesitate to go over and say, 'Hey, get your head out of your [rear], get your feet moving.' I think he knows himself that if you're not working hard, you're not pushing me. And I want to be pushed. I think he's going to surprise people with his skills, but he's also very strong for his size (5-foot-10, 181 pounds)."
At the NHL Scouting Combine, Cooper showcased his strength and fitness by registering top-10 finishes in four of the testing areas, among them a strong showing on the VO2 Max test, which measures a player's stamina and endurance.
"You want to be out there against the best and shut them down," Cooper said. "I think to jump up into the rush and be able to get back with my speed kind of helps me out so I can put some pressure on the other guys to make them feel rushed, otherwise I'm going to be right on top of them. And if I'm in their face, they'll definitely be more worried about coming down on my side of the ice. And if they're going to cut back to my side again, I'll make sure I'm right in their face there again, as well."
That kind of competitive drive is likely to interest teams at the draft.
"He's just a top citizen," Marks said. "That's his whole demeanor. He's a fun guy in that he's got a very dry humor. But he's very mature for his age in that whatever he takes on, he takes on 100 percent. … That"s just 'Coop.'"