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Cooper on playing in empty buildings: "Guys get used to it"

The Bolts' head coach was behind the bench for an AHL playoff game played in front of no fans due to a scheduling conflict

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

Among the possible scenarios about how a resumption of the National Hockey League season might play out, one idea that's been floated is the potential to play games without fans.

At this point, with social distancing remaining in effect for the foreseeable future, it almost seems a foregone conclusion if the League wishes to crown a Stanley Cup champion for the 2019-20 season, it'll have to do so in empty arenas.

Friday, Jon Cooper was asked about that possibility during a video conference call with media. The Tampa Bay Lightning head coach said playing without spectators would certainly be different. But it would only take a couple of shifts before it was business as usual for the players on the ice and the coaches on the bench.

"The first five minutes everybody gets a shift in and there are no fans in the stands, there will probably be a little bit of sarcasm going on the bench like there is on every single NHL bench about what's going on," Cooper said. "But I'm telling you, once the banging starts and the competitive juices kick in, I don't think guys will even notice."

The Lightning typically hold practices without spectators, just a handful of media watching from the AMALIE Arena stands. Sometimes, however, those practices are open to the public, at which point, "it is really weird," Cooper said.

Conversely, it would be weird to play a game in front of an empty arena when players are used to feeding off a raucous, engaged audience.

"But in the end, guys get used to it," he said.

Cooper recalled a Calder Cup Playoffs series in 2012 when he was the head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, then the Lightning's American Hockey League affiliate. The top-seeded Admirals were playing Connecticut in the second round. Both the Admirals' and the Whale's arenas were booked for Game 5, so the contest had to take place at a neutral site in Bridgeport.

With the series tied 2-2, Game 5 would be a pivotal contest.

Mark Messier and Ray Bourque were in the Webster Bank Arena stands.

They were about the only ones, however.

The arena was empty, save for the players, the coaches and the random Hall of Famer.

"It didn't change a thing," Cooper recalled. "Guys were battling it out, gaming it out. That's the only thing I can reflect on when I was a part of something like that at kind of a crucial time in the second round of the playoffs. It was still one hell of a hockey game."

Norfolk shut out Connecticut 4-0 in Game 5. The Admirals would close out the series in Norfolk two days later in Game 6.

Norfolk, in fact, never lost again the remainder of the postseason. The Admirals swept the St. John's IceCaps in the Eastern Conference Final and the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Final to win the only AHL championship for a Lightning affiliate in franchise history.

Less than a year later, Cooper was named the eighth head coach in Lightning history. He's the longest tenured head coach in the NHL.

"I think the guys will get over (not having fans in the stands) pretty quick knowing what's at the end of the rainbow if you keep winning those games," Cooper said from experience.

Cooper's staying active during the NHL pause, more so now with the temporary hold on games entering its seventh week. He and his coaching staff meet over Zoom multiple times a week. He calls his players throughout the week. He's exercising a lot.
"I got really into bike riding. Believe me, I'm not a pro at it."

Cooper now knows a lot more about podcasts after listening to a few on those bike rides.

He says he's probably read more books during the pause than he ever has before.

His latest, "Make Your Bed", was suggested to him by his wife, and it's one he's subsequently had his children read.

"A former Navy SEAL wrote it," Cooper said. "It was a good one. I'm reading Scotty Bowman's (book) right now. I'm reading both fiction and non-fiction books."

He had a few people text him last Sunday to let him know a replay of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final was showing on NBC, the one where the Lightning lost to Chicago and had to watch from the bench as the Blackhawks celebrated their sixth Stanley Cup.

"I'd never watched it before," Cooper said. "…I tuned in five years later hoping for a different result. Unfortunately, it didn't come. That was one of the tougher things I've done definitely during this time."

As Cooper and his staff work diligently toward a hopeful resumption to the season, the Lightning bench boss had a message he hoped to relay to health care workers before ending his call and getting back to work.

"When troubling events like this affect our community or global community, it puts some people to the forefront that I guess you take for granted," he said. "To watch the health care workers and what they're doing and go to work every single day is remarkable to me, and I just want to thank them for myself and my family because they're truly heroes."

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