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Lightning coach Cooper finds 2nd-year success again

by Dan Rosen

TAMPA -- There are two rules that must be followed by any team coached by Jon Cooper.

Rule 76: No excuses, play like a champion.

Rule 113: Don't look for opportunities, make them.

These should sound familiar if you're fans of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.

"They're from the movie 'Wedding Crashers,'" Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio told, "which is hilarious."

They are among the 115 rules that serve as Vaughn's character's code of conduct in the comedy, released in 2005.

"They have symbolism for us," Cooper said.

He has demanded fealty to those two tenets wherever he has gone since moving to St. Louis in 2006 to continue coaching in the North American Hockey League.

They have worked on multiple levels to create one of the oddest trends in hockey, one that has led to the naming of another rule, Cooper's Two-Year Rule.

Cooper's teams have won a championship in his second full season everywhere he's been since St. Louis. He is in his second full season with the Lightning, who need to win four of six games against the Chicago Blackhawks for the trend to continue.

Tampa Bay trails the Blackhawks 1-0 in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final with Game 2 on Saturday at Amalie Arena (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Our video coach, Brian Garlock, mentioned it to me after we won in Norfolk," said Barberio, who won the Calder Cup with Cooper in 2012, their second year together in the American Hockey League. "He said, 'We call it the Two-Year Rule.' The first year you get in the league, you figure it out. The second year, you go out and win it. That's a great rule.'"

It started when Cooper was coaching with Garlock with the St. Louis Bandits in the NAHL. The Bandits, who were owned by former St. Louis Blues forward Kelly Chase, won the Robertson Cup in Cooper's first season (2006-07). They won it again in his second season.

"Coop has some cockiness to him, some swagger," said Chase, who went to high school with Cooper's wife, Jessie.

His players appreciate the attitude.

"He demands respect, but not in a way where he's going to come and yell and scream at you," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's going to pick your brain. He's going to ask what you were thinking on that play. When you can have the relationship with the players that he does, guys are willing to do whatever it takes."

In return, Cooper appreciates what his players do for him and tries to reward them whenever possible.

Phil Rauch was the Bandits captain during the 2006-07 season, but he sustained an injury during the season and was not ready to return in time for the playoffs.

"The kid just kept saying, 'Coop, give me a chance, give me a chance,'" Chase said. "Finally, in the last game of the year, in the championship round, Coop says, 'Fine, you're playing.' The kid is like, 'Coop, it's the last game of the year, you can't do it to me now.' Coop says, 'Hey, you're the captain, you want to play, you're playing.'"

Rauch didn't play until the last 50 seconds of the game, when the Bandits were about to close out a blowout win. Cooper also surprised Rauch by flying in the player's grandfather for the game.

"That's the kind of stuff he does," Chase said. "That's the kind of stuff the guys recognize."

Cooper had a similar run in Green Bay, except he didn't win the USHL's Clark Cup in his first season. The Gamblers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2008-09; they went 45-10-5 and won the championship in 2009-10.

That success catapulted Cooper to the pro ranks, landing a job in the Lightning system with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League.

Again, Cooper got through by being himself.

"Jon Cooper could be with the pope, the president or a pimp and have a conversation where when he walked away they'd go, 'That's an interesting guy, that's a good guy,'" Chase said. "He's a likeable guy and he's figured out how to treat people and get a response out of them."

The Admirals responded to Cooper in 2011-12, when they set a professional sports record with 28 consecutive wins, and ironically finished with 113 points in 76 games, matching the numbers of the rules by which they lived.

Norfolk won 15 of 18 games in the playoffs, including sweeps in the final two rounds.

"I'm a big believer in if you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen," Cooper said. "The first year is usually the figure-it-out year. You figure out who you have, what you can do, and what you need to bring in to have success."

Cooper has done that in Tampa Bay too.

The Lightning had 101 points last season despite losing Stamkos to a broken leg for 45 games. They were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.

"It bothered him, but in the summer we were golfing and he says, 'We lost and we learned some lessons, especially me,'" Chase said. "He also said, 'The one thing about our team is we're going to have a chance in the future to win the Cup. I just know it.'"

The Lightning gave themselves a better chance in the offseason by bringing in some veterans, including defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow, all of whom have played in the Cup Final. They added another such player in defenseman Braydon Coburn prior to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.

"Fortunately, I've had a supporting cast and a management structure that we're in complete synergy," Cooper said. "This level is different because of the salary cap. There are layers. But everybody still has the same principles. We're just taking those all the way to the top.

"Now, the fact that we have won a championship every second year, you can't predict that."

Maybe not, but it's easier to accomplish if you follow the rules.


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