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Jon Cooper: From The Courtroom To The AHL’s Elite

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
Ten years ago, Norfolk Admirals head coach Jon Cooper was a criminal-defense attorney.

Earlier this week, Cooper was named the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, which is presented annually to the American Hockey League’s most-outstanding coach.

Cooper, 44, is the first coach of a Lightning AHL affiliate to ever win the award, which current Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher won two seasons ago while coaching for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Montreal Canadiens organization.

“To be given this award through the recognition of your peers is a huge honor,” said Cooper. “This is the highest level I’ve ever coached at and I’d be lying if I said that winning this award at this level didn’t make it extra special for me.”

The trophy is just the latest honor to be bestowed upon Cooper, whose Admirals team leads the AHL with 107 points and is currently on a professional-hockey record, 25-game winning streak.

“I think the biggest thing that our coach brings to us is his positive attitude,” said Admirals defenseman Mark Barberio. “He’s a great communicator. He was a lawyer in the past and you obviously have to communicate pretty well to be a lawyer. It definitely shines through in his coaching style.”

“As a lawyer, you need to think on your feet, speak on your feet and convince people to take your side on things,” added Cooper. “In hockey, you have to be able to convince your players to buy into your system. I find the communication aspect to be very similar to how I’d have to convince a jury to take my client’s side in a trial.”

Although the need for solid communication may be the only similarity between being an attorney and being a hockey coach, it is hard to debate the results that Cooper has gotten while coaching at various levels since closing his law practice a decade ago.

Before taking the job as Norfolk’s head coach prior to last season, Cooper had twice won his league’s top general manager award and twice won his league’s coach-of-the-year award, since 2006.

Cooper’s first major award came in 2006, when he was named the North American Hockey League coach of the year with the St. Louis Bandits. Cooper repeated as the NAHL’s coach of the year with the Bandits in 2008, winning back-to-back Robertson Cup championships in 2007 and 2008.

After serving as St. Louis’ head coach, Cooper took over the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers in 2008-09, when he helped the Gamblers to the largest single-season points improvement (49 points) in USHL history. Cooper was named the USHL’s general manager of the year in his first season in Green Bay, repeating as general manager of the year the following season, when he led the Gamblers to a franchise-best 45-10-5 record and a Clark Cup championship.

Admirals head coach Jon Cooper was recently honored by the AHL (Photo by John Wright/Norfolk Admirals)
“Our coach absolutely loves to win,” said Barberio. “I think his passion for winning rubs off on his players. He’s won at every level he’s coached and I don’t think that’s an accident.”

Since joining the Lightning organization prior to last season, Cooper has continued his winning ways, which seemingly, at every level, always involve him turning a non-playoff team into a championship contender.

Last season, Cooper’s Admirals became the first Lightning AHL affiliate to make the playoffs since 2004, finishing the season with a 93-point total that was a nine-point improvement from the previous season.

The Admirals’ 93 points in 80 games last season was the highest point total that an AHL team solely affiliated with the Lightning had ever compiled. The team enters the final weekend of this year’s regular season with 107 points in 73 games, meaning a sweep of this weekend’s three games would allow the Admirals to finish their 76-game season with 20 more points than last year.

Norfolk finishes the regular season with a three-game, three-day road trip to Albany, Binghamton and Adirondack this weekend.

The Admirals will then return home to Virginia early next week and play the first two games of their first-round series in Norfolk, against an opponent that has yet to be determined.

The first round of the Calder Cup playoffs will be a best-of-five series, with the remaining three rounds to be best-of-seven series, similar to the format of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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