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Hockey Fights Cancer

Lightning coach Cooper inspired to help fight cancer

Moved by death of young fan, hosts annual charity fishing event in Tampa

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was holding the microphone Tuesday. There was irony to this.

Cooper was at Hattricks Tavern hosting the third part of a charity fishing tournament in his name, "Coop's Catch for Kids," that he developed, organized and started last year in part because he always has other people -- reporters -- holding microphones up to his face as he talks after games or practices.

"You don't know how long you're going to be in this position, to be able to have somebody hold a microphone or a camera in front of your face," Cooper said. "I'm a big believer when that happens to use that in a positive way."

Video: Jon Cooper discusses his Coop's Catch charity event

Cooper is comfortable enough here to do it in a way that he hopes will leave a lasting impression and, ideally, a legacy for whenever his time in Tampa is done.

Two years in, the event has raised more than $210,000 to benefit pediatric cancer research in the Tampa and St. Petersburg region.

"Obviously, Coop's main job is to win hockey games, but I tell you, you wouldn't know it," Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said. "He cares so much about what's going on in this community. He's an amazing person. I'm proud to have him as coach of the team."

Cooper said the event, which raised $60,000 last year, had raised more than $150,000 this year before the final count was in. That includes $68,000 raised at a cocktail reception to begin the event Monday, of which $40,000 came in donations from Vinik, Cooper, general manager Steve Yzerman and the Lightning players.

ESPN college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale, a Tampa resident, staunch supporter of pediatric cancer research and Basketball Hall of Famer, was the keynote speaker.

"Right now, only four cents from every dollar raised for cancer research goes to pediatrics and that's a crime, a total crime," Vitale said. "What Jon is doing is bringing an awareness. He's making a big impact. The impact he's making is going to stay."

Video: Dick Vitale speaks at Jon Cooper's charity event

The tournament Tuesday included 30 boats that went out for four hours. The minimum to get on one was $4,000. Twenty-six boats had one Lightning representative from among Cooper, 24 current players and former captain Vincent Lecavalier.

At an auction at Hattricks after the tournament, three people paid $4,000 each to play a round of golf and have dinner and drinks with Cooper.

"A 26-year-old son of a dear friend of mine passed away last week, and we went to the funeral on Wednesday," Vinik said. "Cancer is everywhere. We've all been touched by cancer, immediate family or not. So how can you not support an event like what Coop is putting on here?"

The event was borne out of a relationship Cooper fostered with local teenager Tony Colton, who had undifferentiated sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. He died at age 17 on July 30, seven years after being diagnosed.

They met in 2015. Colton was the inspiration behind "Coop's Catch for Kids." He was on Cooper's boat last year and spoke at the event.

"Now here we are 12 months later and he's no longer with us," Cooper said. "Just that alone spurs you on to get up in the morning and make sure you can help give back because he was such a big part of myself and our team."

Cooper said he went fishing June 12 with his son, Colton and former Lightning and current New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle. Now Colton is gone, and Boyle has been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, which doctors say is treatable with medication.

"You sit back and reflect and say, 'Well, I'm in a situation where I can help, I have to,' " Cooper said. "Tony was a big part of the spirit of why this event exists and he's no longer with us, but he is looking down and I know if anybody was going to be disappointed if I stopped this event it would be him, so that won't be happening."

Even after his time with the Lightning is up, whenever that may be.

Cooper is entering his fifth full season with the Lightning. He has put down roots in Tampa, with young kids in school, friends in the community and, of course, his charity work.

He wants to see these roots grow for many years.

"My wife lost her dad to cancer a few years ago so we've been affected by this," Cooper said. "I don't believe because if I don't have the job title anymore or we move away that's going to stop this event from going on, whether I'm running it or I pass it on to somebody else to run."

Little does Cooper realize he's a reason some of the Lightning players are motivated to do more in the community too.

"It's tremendous what Coop has done," center Tyler Johnson said. "It says a lot about our organization. It starts with Mr. Vinik and goes all the way down to us. Tampa is a home to us. Anything we can possibly do is special."

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said the players were told at the cocktail reception they should not feel obligated to give any money, largely because they're all giving their time and many have other foundations they financially support.

They pooled together $10,000.

"I just got married this summer and I've talked with my wife about starting something [charitable] too," Stamkos said. "You get inspired."

Cooper didn't have that inspiration when he was brought to Tampa to coach the Lightning. He was new to the NHL and the city. He wasn't established.

He is now, and his reputation around here has room to grow, as does his charity event.

The Lightning this season are expected to prove last season, when they failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, was a fluke. They are expected to be Stanley Cup contenders, which means the potential for more microphones and cameras following them throughout the season.

Bring them on, Cooper says. The pulpit to make a meaningful impact grows with more of them.

"We need more people like Jon, celebrities, people in the world of sports, who reach so many people with their name recognition," Vitale said. "He's doing a great job. I love him."

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