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Bobby Orr autograph still special to Jon Cooper

Lightning coach met favorite player, had Hall of Fame defenseman sign hockey card

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TAMPA -- The well-loved and weathered Bobby Orr hockey card looks like it might have gone through a washing machine or perhaps the turning wheel of a bicycle, clothes-pinned to the frame to make a wonderful racket in the spokes.

It is No. 130 in the 1974 Topps set, cut off-center, the Hall of Fame defenseman camped to the side of Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers in a few-years-old photo -- Cheevers by then was playing with the Cleveland Crusaders of the World Hockey Association. Orr's fading signature, in ballpoint pen, wanders almost the entire width of the card along the bottom.

On this late February day in his office at Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is holding this card, for years kept behind glass in a small frame, as though it's one of the most precious things in his life.

Which it is.

To back up:

One of Cooper's first hockey memories as a boy growing up in Prince George, British Columbia, was a May 1974 camping trip, at age 6, "somewhere in Alberta" with his parents and brother.

The family had arrived for a good reason at swanky Jasper Park Lodge, though they didn't exactly smell like roses after some time roughing it in the bush.

"The lodge staff looked at four people turning up right out of a campground, and they're thinking, 'Oh my God, who are these people?'" Cooper recalled with a laugh. "Well, Mom and Dad wanted to watch the Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, and that's when Bobby Orr became larger than life to me.

[Related: 100 Greatest Players: Bobby Orr]

"Boston loses and this little B.C. kid is crushed. But watching Bobby Orr… I'll never forget that, my first memory of the NHL. Watching Bobby play was the greatest thing ever. That's how I became a Bruins fan, even though they lost."

That was the first of two unhappy, soul-scarring Bruins memories for Cooper in a span of less than two years.

"My dad was a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan," he said. "In [British Columbia] back then you had three channels on TV, and you'd wait for "Hockey Night in Canada" to come on at 5 o'clock. I remember sitting with my dad watching Darryl Sittler get 10 points (on Feb. 7, 1976), thinking it was the coolest thing but the worst thing ever because it happened against the Bruins. I remember I'd go down to my basement to have my own game and all of a sudden I'm Darryl Sittler.

"And I never did see the Bruins win a Stanley Cup as a kid."

Fast-forward a decade to the mid-1980s and Cooper, "by now a college student or maybe not even" and still a dyed-in-the-black-and-gold-wool fan of the Bruins, is attending a Vancouver Canucks game, the first of back-to-back games at Pacific Coliseum. It's then that he notices that sitting two rows behind him in the stands is Bobby Orr. Cooper's heart nearly drops out of his chest.

"I was coming back the next night and I wondered…" he recalled. "So I brought this Bobby Orr card I had and sure enough, Bobby is sitting right behind me again. I was incredibly nervous. Finally, in the second period, I pulled out the card and I asked him, 'Mr. Orr, would you please sign this?' He did, and later I put it in this little frame.

"When Bobby left the Bruins, I transitioned to Ray Bourque (the team's next defense legend). I just loved everything about him."

Cooper's respect for hockey history is reflected in the mural of sorts he had painted, not long after becoming Lightning coach, in the hallway leading from the team's dressing room. Many of the great moments in franchise history are shown here, with more modern highlights depicted in the final steps toward the rink.

"Phil Esposito works for us," Cooper said of the team founder and radio analyst who is featured in the mural. "I consider Phil a good friend, and the stories he tells, they're unbelievable. To think I'm sitting at the same table, sharing stories like we're long-time buddies. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, I used to idolize you.' I don't know how many Phil Esposito photos I have of him with Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series."

After his brush with Orr, Cooper probably most cherishes watching Games 6 and 7 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Semifinals, when the Los Angeles Kings eliminated Toronto to advance to the Final.

"I'd gone to high school with [Maple Leafs icon] Wendel Clark and I was kind of cheering for Toronto because of my friendship with Wendel," Cooper said. "But watching Wayne Gretzky in Game 7, that was the single greatest hockey performance I'd ever seen -- the biggest moment on the biggest stage to advance to the Final."

The Kings went on to lose the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Canadiens, but Cooper is still warmed by the memory of Gretzky's dominance and remembers how that game changed his household.

"I got a dog the following year and I named it Gretzky," he said, grinning. "A white Maltese. Fancy. Just the way Wayne played."

Gretzky was at Amalie Arena the morning we spoke; the Edmonton Oilers were in town for a game that night.

"I hope I bump into Wayne," Cooper said, fanboy in his voice. You could almost hear his pain the following morning when he said that a meeting didn't happen.

A lot of water has flowed beneath the coach's bridge since that boyhood camping trip to Alberta, the first time hockey entered his life in an important way.

He went on to play the game in high school for Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, play lacrosse and hockey at Hofstra University on Long Island and earn a degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, before changing streams from law to coaching. Cooper closed his practice in 2003 to pursue a career in coaching, graduating from the United States Hockey League to the American Hockey League and, finally, to the Lightning.

In all the years since two unforgettable nights in Vancouver, his boyhood idol sitting just feet from him, you wonder how often Cooper has reminded Bobby Orr of the night the Bruins legend autographed a star-struck fan's battered hockey card.

"Not even once," he said. "That was the only time we've met."

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