Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper bet on himself 12 years ago. He had the winning ticket.
"Was I nervous in the sense that I was giving up a law practice that I worked really hard to try [to] develop to go and become a hockey coach? Yes, that part made me nervous," Cooper said. "But did I ever feel like I couldn't do it? No, I never felt like I couldn't do it."
Cooper will be behind the bench Thursday at Amalie Arena for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Detroit Red Wings (7:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, TVA Sports, SN, FS-D, FS-F). The Lightning hope to start what could be a long, successful journey in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Cooper knows about long journeys and how they can lead to unexpected success.
He went from being a high school hockey player in Saskatchewan to college lacrosse player at Hofstra University. Cooper worked on Wall Street before leaving for Michigan, where he got his law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing. He practiced law as a public defender.
All along, Cooper kept his hand in hockey. He played on a local team of lawyers and met a judge through that affiliation. The judge's son was a goalie at Lansing Catholic Central High School. The school needed a coach; Cooper needed to scratch an itch.
He led Lansing Catholic to a regional title.
He hasn't practiced law since 2003.
"I didn't get into coaching to coach in the NHL," Cooper said. "I got into coaching because I loved it. I enjoyed that you get to assemble a team, and you've got one season to win a championship. I just loved that challenge."
Cooper's style makes him a player-friendly coach. He interacts with his players on a personal level. He seeks their opinions on things he wants them to do before he asks them to do it.
"He's not like any other coach I've ever had," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "When I first came in I was used to old-school coaches, screaming in your ear, yelling at you, but he's not quite like that. He has a mix of everything. He's very smart."
Johnson said Cooper uses his courtroom tactics on the bench and in video sessions. Like any good lawyer, he seeks opinions before stating his case and he chooses his words carefully when making his final argument.
"He's very good with his words and he's very good at convincing you," said Ottawa Senators forward Erik Condra, who was an usher in Cooper's wedding after playing for him in the HoneyBaked Hockey Program in Oak Park, Mich. "He convinces you to go through a wall for him. He gets you to play for him. I think that's the biggest reason why he's done so well."
From Texarkana to Tampa
Cooper's journey looks like a road map drawn up by a sadistic travel agent. He had three stops in Michigan (Lansing, Waterford Township, Oak Park) before moving to Texarkana, Texas for three years. He was in St. Louis, Mo., for two years, Green Bay, Wis., for two, Norfolk, Va. for two, and Syracuse, N.Y., for almost a full season before he got to Tampa.
He became a full-time coach when he moved to Texarkana in 2003 to coach in the North American Hockey League.
"You really have to love hockey when you go through Texarkana," Lightning assistant coach Rick Bowness said. "That means you've got an incredible love and passion for the game. That jumps out at you. Then when you watch him work and interact with the players, that love of the game jumps out at you again."
His team in Texarkana relocated to St. Louis, where Cooper won the North American Hockey League championship in 2007 and 2008. He had also won a championship in his second season with the Waterford Metro Jets and in his second season in with HoneyBaked Hockey Club in Oak Park.
The trend continued after Cooper left St. Louis. He won a United States Hockey League championship (Clark Cup) in 2009-10, his second season with the Green Bay Gamblers. He won the Calder Cup in 2011-12, his second season in the American Hockey League with the Norfolk Admirals.
Cooper is in his second full season coaching the Lightning.
"The biggest respect you have for him is as he's gone through his path he's been a winner at every level," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "Knowing that he knows how to win and what to do to win, that's huge for us."
Winning helped Cooper coach his way into pro hockey. That's different from some other coaches, who transition from professional playing careers into coaching and have a sizeable circle of contacts in the League.
"You don't have the inner circle, and you're constantly going to be judged," Cooper said. "You have to make it more on your record, style, preparation, and it all has to be totally different."
Cooper said he didn't even consider the idea of coaching in the NHL until he got to Norfolk.
"Even then I was so blindsided by pro hockey, I think that first year I was just trying to survive," Cooper said. "That whole saying, you have to learn to be a pro, there's so much truth to that, for coaches too. You haven't earned the respect from the refs or the coaches when you're a rookie in pro hockey. You haven't earned anything. When I got to the American League, those first couple weeks, it was painful for me."
He was better in his second season, when his success, including a 28-game winning streak in the regular season, put Cooper on the NHL's radar.
By the end of the 2012-13 season he was coaching the Lightning. Cooper was a Jack Adams Award finalist for leading the Lightning to 101 points last season, despite Steven Stamkos missing 55 games. The Lightning finished this season with 108 points.
Cooper said his jump from junior to the AHL was steeper than his jump from the AHL to the NHL because he already had almost three seasons of pro hockey behind him.
The difference in the NHL was the notoriety he gained and the criticism he received. Nothing could have prepared him for that.
"Nobody really cares about you in the American League," Cooper said. "The only difference with the NHL is that the whole world is watching."
A rookie coach survives in the NHL fishbowl only when he stays true to himself and doesn't let outside distractions get in the way of what he knows can make him successful.
That's Cooper. Those are the rules he has followed since he left his law practice for Texarkana.
"You're at the pinnacle of your profession in the NHL, but you've opened yourself up to being talked about, either applauded or criticized," Cooper said. "That's when you have to be firm to your convictions and say, 'I've done it this way my whole career and I've had more success than not, why am I going to change?'"
Cooper takes that to include his personality, which seems atypical in the coaching fraternity.
"He is a little bit of a [comedian] every once in a while," Johnson said.
Cooper is a self-proclaimed practical joker. Last year, when the Lightning were trailing the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 in the Eastern Conference First Round, Cooper snuck into a media scrum around Stamkos, pretended his water bottle was a microphone, and started asking questions.
He was lauded by some for showing a lighter side while dealing with a difficult circumstance. Others were critical of him for not taking the situation serious enough.
"I'm not a hermit; I like to engage people," Cooper said. "Now people are asking if I'm going to stop doing stuff like that. I have to think twice about it, but then I'm like, 'Well, why wouldn't I do it?'"
Callahan realized the type of coach he was getting literally the moment he arrived in Tampa after getting traded from the New York Rangers last season.
He needed a ride from the airport to his hotel. Cooper picked him up.
"It's definitely not what I expected," Callahan said. "I don't think every NHL coach would do that. Obviously there was a lot going through my mind, my nerves, and to have him sitting there waiting for me at the airport showed me right away how much he cares about the team and how much he cares about his players. It definitely made an impression on me."
Now, a dozen years after he first bet on his own hockey prospects, Cooper is at the pinnacle of his profession, coaching at the highest level and enjoying the perks that accompany such a position.
"The way we're treated, gosh, I don't know if anybody earns that," Cooper said. "So I haven't really earned the lifestyle, but I've earned my job title and with that comes the lifestyle. If we didn't fly first class it wouldn't matter to me, but I never wanted to be in that situation where people were like, 'Well, he got that given to him.'
"I know where I came from and I'll never forget that."