MONTREAL -- Jon Cooper is blaming a revamp of the Florida school system for his almost invisible summer. That's his story, he says with a laugh, and he's sticking to it.
Cooper, coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is one of four assistants for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. He's thrilled to be dipping his toe into these international hockey waters, describing himself as a sponge for all that has washed over him after three days of training camp here.
As for his summer that was almost a rumor?
"I'm blaming it on my kids, whose school in Florida this year started on Aug. 10, which was awful. Push the blame!" Cooper said Wednesday after practice in an empty locker room that normally is home to the Montreal Canadiens.
"The World Cup isn't a yearly event. This may be a one and done. You hope the tournament continues every four years, or whatever it's going to be, but you don't know. And I can't look into the future and say I'm going to coach in the NHL for 20 more years. When you have an opportunity to do this, something that you love, you can't pass it up."
The Lightning gave the Pittsburgh Penguins all they could handle in a seven-game Eastern Conference Final that ended May 26. Then came the NHL offseason, which is a bit of a misnomer even in a normal summer that doesn't involve a high-profile World Cup tournament.
"Everybody thinks you have this long summer," Cooper said. "But you don't even have the time to digest the season when you play until darn near June, then your players leave and all of a sudden you've got [the] NHL Draft, then development camp, and by then it's the middle of July.
"August used to be the break for you, but it wasn't this year because of the World Cup. I had a little bit of time in July then my mind started working again because everything I'd have been doing in September, I had to back up a month and do in August because of the World Cup. It made it a short summer."
Yet Cooper hesitated not an instant when Team North America general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan, who hold those jobs with the Edmonton Oilers, spoke with him last season about working with their World Cup team made up of players 23 years old and younger from the United States and Canada. This wasn't the only team that courted Cooper, a 49-year-old native of Prince George, British Columbia, but it was the one that had the most appeal.
McLellan is leaning heavily on three men who run his own NHL bench: Cooper, Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, and Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. A fourth, Jay Woodcroft, is a McLellan assistant with Edmonton.
"I'd had conversations with a couple of the teams in this tournament, and when I got the call from Todd and Peter to be a part of this, it was hard not to jump at this opportunity," Cooper said of coaching Connor McDavid, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft; Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft; and Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. "Not only to be surrounded with this talent level and the excitement and exuberance of the young guys, but also the coaching staff."
McLellan spoke to the role of his assistants and how much responsibility he's giving them.
"I think our staff has been very well prepared at this point," he said. "Everybody is getting an opportunity to contribute. In these types of scenarios, I dislike using the word 'assistant.' I think we're all just co-coaches, all capable of coaching and managing at this level, and that's the way we are approaching things.
"Each of the coaches has an area that's defined or assigned to them but we all make group decisions. You may see Dave Tippett running a penalty-kill practice because that's his area, but we're all involved in it. As there are bumps in the road, it's not one individual's responsibility. Everything's on our shoulders, not just on an individual."
The unusual role as an assistant, Cooper said, is a pleasant change of pace.
"Usually I'm the one barking the orders, not pushing the pucks, but it's great to be around these guys," he said. "I never have the opportunity to be around other head coaches. You get to learn. You pick up some things that Todd does, he's a [heck] of a coach. You pull things from him. Dave and Gerard have been in this league forever. I'm kind of the rookie sponge, taking it all in with these guys. I'm going to school like the players are. It's just an honor to be here."
Never before has Cooper been up to his eyebrows in top-shelf hockey this early on the calendar. He views more than a few similarities between Team North America camp and that of an NHL team, after joking, "In an NHL camp, you don't have this many first-overall picks (five) in one room.
"The revelation for me was that first day of practice on Monday, watching the talent level and speed of the 23 kids we had out there. I was blown away. They all could execute with such high-end speed. Tell me another time in hockey history that on Sept. 4 you'd see that in opening-day practice. It's something to marvel at. It's amazing how good these players are at a young age."