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Lightning coach Cooper took winding road to dream

by Lonnie Herman

There are some people in the hockey world who think Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper came to his position from out of nowhere.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact Cooper, 45, has been almost everywhere chasing his hockey dream.

"Let me just think here," Cooper said as he tried to impose order on the last 14 years. "Texarkana. No wait -- it was Detroit, Texarkana, St. Louis, Green Bay, Norfolk, Syracuse."

That's not the plan for an offseason road trip. That's his coaching resume and it's sprinkled with initials that the average fan could never decipher. NAHL. USHL. Add in the Metro Jets, a Junior B team from Waterford Township, Mich., and Honeybaked, a midget-major team in Oak Park, Mich., and the whole long odyssey comes into focus.

Jon Cooper's been a coach for 12 years, though he's just a rookie coach in the NHL. (Photo: Getty Images)

It's no wonder he has trouble recalling them all; if you moved 10 times in 12 years you might get a bit confused too.

What's amazing is how Cooper has won at each stop and his teams have exceeded expectations. Almost every stop involved turning around a moribund program.

Still, he is the mystery man of the NHL coaching ranks. He never played the game beyond some junior hockey and is an unknown to most of the coaching fraternity.

But don't call him a rookie coach because he'll correct you promptly. He's been a coach for 12 years. He's just a rookie coach in the NHL.

When Ken Hitchcock brought the St. Louis Blues to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the veteran coach told the media he had to review film so he would recognize the opposing coach.

Will the Mystery Guest sign in, please?

After attending Hofstra University on Long Island on a lacrosse scholarship, the Prince George, British Columbia native began his career in the real world working in the research department of a Wall Street firm and commuting on the Long Island Railroad to his home in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

"It was a different person," Cooper said. "If I look then to see where I am now, it's two opposite ends of the world. It took me some time to figure myself out."

He headed to Lansing, Mich., to attend the Cooley Law School at Michigan State University, but a career as a public defender wasn't working any magic on him either.

"The part of practicing law that didn't quite grab me was the fact that after a year or two years or four years, I'm sitting there doing the same thing," Cooper said. "For me personally, there was never a light at the end of the tunnel. And money was not a light at the end of the tunnel for me."

A confirmed hockey junkie, Cooper found his way inside a rink when a judge he knew asked him to take the reins of his son's high school hockey team.

"When he asked me to coach the team so many different things went through my mind," Cooper said. "Can I do this time-wise?"

He never had coached a hockey team before, though he did sit in the stands and watch the Michigan State team practice on many occasions and played on a men's league team of lawyers called the Legal Eagles, but a lack of technical knowledge was not a concern for Cooper.

"I don't think I ever had a question of whether I could do it, period," he said. "I was smart about this because I went and got Pat Murray, who is part of the Murray boy clan and had played a bit in the NHL. He was going to grad school at Michigan State at the time and I went right to him and asked, 'Hey, you want to jump on this little coaching thing with me?'"

It was little more than a lark, really, a favor to an influential acquaintance, to work with a bunch of kids who were going nowhere in the world of hockey but just enjoyed playing.

But in short order Cooper led the Lansing Central Catholic High School team to its first regional hockey title in 25 years.

Soon Cooper shuttered his law practice and took off to pursue his coaching dream. Along the trail he collected a slew of championship rings and trophies.

He led the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League to a historic 50-point turnaround in his first season and won the Clark Cup in 2009-10 as the league champion. That summer he had a new agreement with the Gamblers in his pocket and was looking forward to a long stay in a town he and his wife Jessie enjoyed.

And then Julian BriseBois called.

BriseBois had just been hired by the Tampa Bay Lightning as assistant general manager and his duties included supervising the Lightning's American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals. The Admirals hadn't had a winning season in the past three and BriseBois set off on a search for a new coach.

"These are the three things that I thought we needed," BriseBois said. "We needed someone who had leadership and good communication skills, someone who was a teacher and someone who builds good relationships with his players over and above the traditional player-coach relationship."

Conspicuously absent from the list was any mention of technical skills.

"At a certain level you know enough about X's and O's, and if you're a good leader and you know that that is not your biggest strength, you can surround yourself with people who can complement you."

When a conversation with an agent led to a recital of the qualification list, BriseBois heard the agent say he knew the exact guy. Up until then BriseBois hadn't considered the USHL as a likely source for a new coach. He had looked at the three Canadian junior leagues, the NHL assistant coaching ranks and in the ECHL.

"I don’t think that BriseBois even knew what the USHL was," Cooper said.

Once the Lightning brain trust reviewed Cooper's resume, they called him in for an interview.

"He was exactly who we were looking for," BriseBois said. "He had those special qualities and that's why he had success wherever he had been. He'd figure the rest out and he did."

It was a gutsy hire. No other coach had gone from the USHL to become an AHL coach.

As he had everywhere else he had been, Cooper turned the program at Norfolk around quickly and hoisted the Calder Cup in his second season.

Along the way he molded a young team into a unit that at one point put together a professional hockey-record 28 consecutive wins.

And now, with eight members of his AHL team joining him on the Lighting, he has the team off to a fast start this season, his first full season in Tampa Bay.

What is the secret of his success? What inspires the sincere loyalty and affection his players display toward him?

"He's been great," said defenseman Radko Gudas, who is in his fourth season playing for Cooper. "He is a player's coach. He knows what the guys want. He wants this team to be great on the ice but he also wants the team to be great off the ice."

Off the ice? He's talking about having fun in the NHL?

"He's a very approachable coach," Mark Barberio, another AHL alum, said. "I guess you can call him a player's coach. He walks that fine line between being respectful with the players and easy to talk to, but at the same time he has the guys' respect. Guys play really hard for him. He's a winner. He loves to win and it rubs off on the guys."

So it's not the technical aspects his players talk about, although Cooper does stress taking care of the defensive end of the ice first. Apparently his success is rooted in something else, something much less tangible.

"I think I'm a good communicator and a good motivator," Cooper said. "I have this ability to be able to make a bunch of moving parts all move in the right direction."

Whatever Cooper is selling, he has Rick Bowness, his assistant and a 22-year veteran of the NHL coaching wars, moving in lock-step.

"It's easy to work with him because he's such a great guy," Bowness said. "He's a sociable guy and a fun-loving guy. You come to the rink and you work together, but you have a little fun doing it. He enjoys that. From our first meeting there was good chemistry. We want to work, we want to have fun and we want to enjoy each other."

But above all, there is an incredibly strong sense his force of determination will prevail.

"I don’t doubt myself," Cooper said. "That can be a hard thing to do in the sense that you have to get to the point in life where you have to believe in yourself, and for whatever reason, I'm going to do it my way. It's just that I'm confident in my abilities.

"I've never been one to have insecurity inside me. I jump in with my two feet and say, 'This is the way it's going to go.' I gather information and think it through, but once I make my decision that's it.

"To be honest, the only difference in the coach that coached that boys' high school team and the one coaching today is that I'm much more schooled at the game. Other than that I don't think there is an ounce that has changed in me. I treat Steven Stamkos the exact same way I would treat one of the kids on the team in high school."

Cooper's drive is to succeed is motivated by a desire not to have his family have to pack and move again for a while.

"To be afforded the ability to stay in a city for some time and allow our three kids to go to the same school and grow up with some friends, that would mean a lot to me," he said

But in the next minute, the hockey outsider is back.

"You know who I'd really like to meet?" Cooper said. "Wayne Gretzky. Now that I'm in the business we have a lot of mutual friends but I've never gotten to meet him, so one day I'd like to sit down and have a beer with Wayne Gretzky."

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