ESTERO, Fl. – Teamwork. A concept often assumed but never quite addressed. For head coach Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning, however, it is an instrumental value that is being emphasized on a daily basis.
Spending the last week of training camp in Estero, Florida is a trip that Tampa Bay has made before, but not in exactly the same way as this year. Spending a portion of their stay bonding through golf outings and team dinners while also participating in the regular practices and games, it seems just another tactic that Cooper has used to promote his team-first attitude.
“The team becomes your second family and when you’re home there can be distractions,” Cooper said. “Those are all values we cherish, but it’s time to put this team together, this is our job and for us to get away for a little while and just concentrate on hockey, I think that’s imperative.”
While instilling these values into his second family is something that Cooper knows will take time, he has been able to surround himself with players and staff who have already bought-in.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “There are a few guys on this team who have played for me and trust what we’re doing and they don’t even blink an eye. You have to surround yourself with that and we have a coaching staff where everybody’s on the same page, so it really helps.”
Forwards Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat are a few of those guys, having seen first-hand how crucial the simple concept of teamwork can be. They’ve also seen how it breeds success.
“It’s huge, the last two years in the AHL we always went up to St. John’s for training camp and I thought that was a huge head start for our team to get to know each other,” Johnson said. “It’s the same thing here. We’re all staying in the same hotel and going to dinners. It’s huge to be on the road early and to get to know the guys.”
Watching the Panik, Johnson and Palat trio’s continued progression during the 2013-14 camp, the Bolts have discovered how magical their chemistry can be on the ice. A combined nine points (five goals, four assists) in three games has made them the most successful line on the team thus far.
That chemistry is something that began with Cooper.
“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s always had that team-first mentality,” Johnson said. “The guys who were in Syracuse and Norfolk realized how much easier it made our lives by doing that. It just makes the game so much simpler and I think this team is starting to realize that and the quicker they do, the better it will be.”
Having a well-established friendship off the ice, it is almost as if it wouldn't be right to keep one on the final roster without the other two making the team, as their experiences together have been well documented.
“We were rookies in the AHL when we started, so we had to do all of the rookies duties on the bus and do everything together,” Johnson said. “It’s been great that we all are coming up here at the same time. It’s pretty fun to spend time doing the rookie duties again.”
The line of Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson continues to impress this preseason.
“They’re all buddies. Not only do they get along on the ice, they get along off the ice and they’re all pulling for each other,” Cooper continued. “They kind of get rattled when they’re not on a line together, and when they don’t do a drill together. I have twins, so I know how it feels when one of them gets something and the other one doesn’t. They pull for each other, and then all of a sudden when they’re back together the sun is shining, every light is green, things are back to normal for them.”
Now, with the entire Lightning team on hand to witness the small victories of his methods, Cooper’s theory is starting to trickle down to the rest.
And to veterans, Cooper’s team-building is refreshing.
“Every coach has different philosophies and different ways they approach things,” center Steven Stamkos said. “I think every coach wants you to be a team, but Cooper actually goes out of his way to make sure that happens.”
When the team completely jumps on board, then, hopefully, the results will show.
“If you have a coach who shows you respect and you have respect from him, guys are accountable for their actions and when things are going well he’s going to reward you,” Stamkos said. “That was the message from the end of last year and that’s the same message this year. We want to keep that winning attitude so we can keep having fun.”
While Cooper made it clear that the Lightning still have a lot to work on with the regular season nipping at their heels, spending some time as a unit has benefited this work in progress. It also is a sign that a little teamwork can go a long way into creating that winning formula.