His team had just beat the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to pick up its first win of the season, but Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper remained uneasy. Despite tying the road game in the third period and going on to win in a shootout, the Lightning had gotten off to an ugly start, recording zero shots on goal in the first period.1
“I was looking for the police when we left the locker room,” Cooper said on Saturday night after the comeback win, “because I thought we’d get arrested for stealing. We stole two points.”
Spoken like a true attorney — which was, just a decade ago, Cooper’s full-time profession, but which these days seems like an increasingly distant past life. Once a public defender in Lansing, Michigan, who snagged some pickup ice time with colleagues here and there, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s coach has worked his way up through the hockey ranks to become one of the NHL’s more intriguing recent hires.
His résumé spans outposts like Texarkana and Green Bay; he’s won championships with ragtag teenagers and with men on the cusp of an NHL dream. He has a career trajectory similar to some on-ice prospect who’s short on pedigree but long on performance, who expects little but is willing to go through a lot. And oftentimes, he sounds more like a newly drafted player than a 46-year-old coach.
“I’m jacked,” he said last season, before coaching his very first NHL game. He joked about needing directions to general manager Steve Yzerman’s office, and he expressed surprise at how quickly pro players grasped concepts and absorbed directions. He addressed the media as peers. If he’d been wearing a tweedy jacket and scowling, he’d look a teensy bit like Herb Brooks.
But he wasn’t scowling, not even close. “I wish everybody could feel what I’m feeling right now,” he said at the time. “Pretty cool.”
Seventeen games remained in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season when Yzerman decided to fire third-year coach Guy Boucher. After falling in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, the Lightning were on track to miss the postseason for the second year in a row. Management wanted a change.
And so it all went down in much the same way it would with any player: The team was struggling and in need of a shakeup, and so a promising young guy from the minor league system finally got the nod. In this case, it was Cooper, head coach of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch.
Leaning back in his chair in a hallway arena following a Lightning preseason practice in mid-September, Cooper reflected on those first few hectic days.
“The whirlwind is getting the call from Steve Yzerman, and just in that moment you’re like Wow, my life’s about to change here,” he said. “But the one holy shit moment wasn’t flying in, and it wasn’t doing the press conference, and it wasn’t seeing or watching the game. It was at about quarter to eleven at night, when I walked into that room to the silence of 24 players and the entire staff and everybody was waiting to hear what I had to say. That was the one moment where if you could just stop it in time you’d go Ooh, wow, I wonder what everyone’s thinking right now.”
So, what did he have to say? He’s not entirely sure.
“It was almost awkward. I don’t remember exactly what I said. For a second I was like, ‘Uhh, am I in the right room?'”
The hockey world is so closely knit as to border on incestuous; sometimes it feels like each and every player or coach or general manager has at some point played with, against, and for everybody else.
Guys know each other from teams they played on together as kiddos back in the greater Toronto area. (Awww!) Opposing coaches speak fondly of facing off against one another back in their major junior days. Former players grow up to become general managers, and in turn they hire other former players as front-office guys or scouts. Two-thirds of the league’s head coaches had at least a quick cup of coffee in the NHL as players at one point or another; some, like Kirk Muller or Adam Oates, were stars back in their day. Of those who never did log an NHL minute, most at least saw time in some sort of professional, collegiate, or CHL capacity.
There are a few exceptions to every rule, though, and they include St. Louis’s Ken Hitchcock — who, for the most part, has always just been a good ol’ coach — and Calgary’s Bob Hartley, who was working at a windshield factory and volunteering with the goaltenders on a local junior team in Ontario when his former baseball skipper convinced him to take over the whole shebang.
And now there’s Cooper, whose origin story is similarly unexpected. The Prince George, British Columbia, native played a few years of hockey at Notre Dame high school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, but it was a lacrosse scholarship that sent him to college at Hofstra on Long Island.2 There he dabbled in club hockey, went to a bunch of Islanders games, graduated with a degree in business administration in 1989, and got a job at Prudential Securities down in New York’s financial district.
In 1994 he left lower Manhattan for law school in Lansing; he had thoughts of perhaps becoming an agent one day. He ran the school’s club hockey team and — after he graduated and passed the bar3 — played on a local team of lawyers that called itself the Legal Eagles.
So I’ve been practicing [law] about a year and a half,” Cooper said of the conversation that would change the course of his life. “And then a judge asks me to work for a kids’ team.”
It was 1999, the judge was the Honorable Thomas E. Brennan Jr., and the team was the struggling Lansing Catholic Central High School squad for which Brennan’s son played goalie. Cooper agreed to give it a shot, and by the end of the season, the team was the regional champion for the first time in a quarter-century and Cooper was the Lansing State Journal’s coach of the year. It was all very Gordon Bombay, except without the whole getting-arrested thing.
“Let’s see, I coached a year of high school,” Cooper said, ticking off his work experience on his fingers. “Then a year of Junior B … I coached four different teams in four years, all while practicing law in two different cities.”
At the helm of the Junior B Metro Jets team, Cooper won a national championship. He then moved on to Honeybaked, another Michigan-based organization and one of the U.S.’s top magnets for under-18 talent. He was still practicing law at this point, and there were certainly some benefits to the double life. “We played up in these rinks all over Michigan,” he said, “and I actually knew where they were, because I’d been to so many different courthouses all over. I got a lot of clients from it, too.”
His ascent through the teenage hockey ranks grabbed the attention of the Texarkana Bandits owners, which included former St. Louis Blues roughneck Kelly Chase. It was then that Cooper, faced with the prospect of coaching a team located not in Michigan but at the Louisiana-Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas crossroads, had a big choice to make.
“In the beginning I was doing 70, 80 hours a week of law, and 10 to 20 hours a week of hockey,” Cooper said. “Four years later, it was reversed. And I wasn’t getting paid, so I’m just hanging on as a lawyer. And then I had the opportunity to coach juniors and I thought, Ehh, I’m young enough. Since I took the junior job and started coaching full-time, I’ve never looked at a clock a day in my life.”
Cooper shuttered his law practice in 2003 and arrived in Texarkana, a town where rodeos took precedence over hockey games in the fairground building the events shared. He told USA Hockey the team routinely had to journey 120 miles one way, with him schlepping equipment behind a rented Suburban, just to get some practice ice time in Little Rock.
“In juniors I was the head coach, GM, sales — the whole thing,” he said. (He was also an artiste and a handyman, occasionally having to hand-paint logos on the rink or personally construct the boards.)
In the summer of 2006, the Bandits relocated to a far better logistical situation in St. Louis. In their first season in the new market, they won the Robertson Cup title, and the next year they repeated as champs. Cooper was twice named the North American Hockey League Coach of the Year. He adored the organization and the city, but then he was contacted by the basement-dwelling Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League — the top junior league in the U.S.
Do I even need to explain what happened next? The Gamblers went from worst to first in the 2008-09 regular season, and the following year they claimed the Clark Cup. And Cooper added two-time USHL GM of the Year honors to his ever-growing list of accolades.
For a brief shining moment, the scoreboard in the Tampa Bay Times Forum was the “largest center-hung arena HD video display board in the U.S. and Canada” — a distinction that it seems to have surrendered to Denver’s Pepsi Center in the always-escalating Kiss Cam arms race. Still, it’s an impressive electronic beast. Even with the screen blank during a Lightning preseason practice, it loomed over the arena, a conspicuous reminder of the investments that hedge funder Jeff Vinik has put into the team since purchasing it in 2010.
Below the scoreboard were about 30 Lightning players — final cuts had not yet been made — and five or so coaches. All the ones that looked the most authoritative were the assistants, while the one who most resembled a college laxer, with his Lightning cap pulled down low on his head and his hair curling out from under the back of it (old habits die hard!), was the coach.4 In the stands, Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois explained that working a step below the NHL can be particularly hard.
“I always tell first-time AHL coaches, ‘You’ve coached maybe in juniors or wherever it was you were before, and your job was really clear: Win games,'” BriseBois said. “If you’re in juniors it’s about winning. If you’re in the NHL it’s about winning. If you’re in some AHL programs, maybe it’s about winning, too. NCAA — winning. But AHL, for the Tampa Bay Lightning? It’s about development.
“Whatever these players have, in terms of potential, you have to bring it out of them,” he continued. “Some of them are East Coast [Hockey League] players right now, borderline AHLers, that’s as good as they’ll ever be; your job is to get them to be that. Some guys are gonna be NHL stars; your job is to get that out of them. So it’s a lot tougher, I think, on the coaches in that regard.”
Like Cooper, BriseBois came to hockey not from the inside but by way of the legal field; their ascents took place pretty much concurrently.5 After working in sports law at the firm of Heenan Blaikie, where he handled arbitration and contract-related cases, BriseBois was hired in 2001 by the Montreal Canadiens as director of legal affairs. He was 24. Over the better part of the next decade, he rose through the ranks in Montreal, being named director and then VP of hockey operations, and eventually taking the helm of the team’s AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007 as GM.
A few months after Yzerman was hired as the Tampa Bay Lightning general manager in the summer of 2010, he brought in BriseBois from Montreal to fill two nicely overlapping roles: assistant GM of the Lightning, and head guy of their minor league affiliate Norfolk Admirals. And a few months after that, the two men asked a rising junior coach named Jon Cooper if he’d like to make the leap to the AHL.
“He’s a special guy,” BriseBois said of Cooper. “He’s got a certain something. You know, he’s got that X factor, and that’s why he would have been successful in whatever field he ended up choosing. Luckily for us, he chose hockey and our paths crossed.”
While Cooper’s job in Norfolk was to focus on development, he nevertheless repeated his familiar patterns. Norfolk hadn’t made the playoffs since becoming Tampa’s minor league affiliate in 2007, but in Cooper’s first year they made the postseason, falling in six games in the first round. The next season for the Admirals included a 28-game win streak, which crushed the previous pro hockey record of 18, and an absolute romp through the postseason. Norfolk lost only three playoff games that year, and swept both the conference finals and the championship finals to win the Calder Cup. Last season, the Lightning moved their players and coaches to a new minor league affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, and the team went back to the Calder Cup finals, though this time they lost in six games. (By then, Cooper had been hired to finish out the season with the Lightning.)
BriseBois conceded that for all his talk of development over winning, the latter remains a necessary part of the cycle. To him, the AHL playoffs are the single closest approximation to NHL play of any league in the world, he said, and getting that experience is invaluable both for the guys on the ice and for the men who evaluate their NHL readiness. And, in this case, for the coach.
Since being drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, Steven Stamkos has been one of the top five or 10 players in the league — a generational talent with an unparalleled shot. He has also already played under four different head coaches. Barry Melrose was fired halfway through Stamkos’s rookie year when team management disagreed with his treatment and assessment of the elite 18-year-old; Rick Tocchet became a casualty when the new Vinik-led group purchased the franchise in 2010; and Boucher, who like Cooper came from the AHL ranks, quickly wore out his welcome.
“I think it’s one of the better ones I’ve had in the six years I’ve been here,” Stamkos said of Cooper’s preseason regime, “and I think a lot of it was that it was great to have him come in for the last games of the year last year.”
Cooper wasn’t the only one who got called up for the end of last season; a number of the organization’s AHL players earned ice time on the Lightning near the end of the season, a trend that endured over the summer. Most NHL training camps feature one, maybe two slots that are really considered “up for grabs.”
But the competition was broader for this year’s Lightning. The team had made the painful, if necessary, decision to buy out beloved captain Vinny Lecavalier’s onerous contract in the offseason, shedding ties with one of two remaining links to the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup.6 And while the team made one of the more underrated free-agent signings of the offseason when they inked Detroit possession monster Valtteri Filppula, it wasn’t a splashy acquisition.
“It’s probably not a coincidence,” BriseBois said. “We knew we had a number of young guys [from the AHL system] ready to step in, and so we didn’t need to go out and fill those roles. You can bring in an older guy to bridge, or you can invest in your young guys and hopefully grow with them over the next few years. We have a young coach, they’ve all won together, they’ve grown together already over the last few years, and now we’re hoping they’ll succeed at the NHL level.”
When the Lightning announced its opening-night roster, the names included a trio of guys who all played alongside one another at the AHL level. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Panik were known as the “Top Gun Line” as members of the Syracuse Crunch, and their continued chemistry and production throughout the preseason earned them all roster spots on the Lightning.
Johnson in particular was reminiscent of another Tampa player who rose through the minor league ranks. Both he and Cory Conacher were undersized and went undrafted, and each signed with the Lightning organization and went on to thrive. Johnson was AHL MVP last season and led the league in goal scoring, while Conacher earned 80 points in 75 AHL games in 2011-12. He broke the Lightning’s lineup last season and got off to an outstanding NHL start.7
Absent from the list, though, were this summer’s third-overall pick, Jonathan Drouin, who was sent back to his junior team to continue to refine his playmaking skills, and Brett Connolly, a sixth-overall draft pick in 2010 who was tied for the Lightning preseason lead with four goals and seemed poised to make the team.
“The tough thing for me is that all the guys who are battling for these spots are ‘my guys,'” Cooper said.
In the case of Connolly, a highly skilled forward who is still working on becoming more consistent, the Lightning felt that he’d develop better by playing huge minutes in the AHL rather than third- or fourth-line shifts with Tampa. “There’s no hurt, shame, or anything in going back to the American Hockey League,” Cooper told the Tampa Bay Lightning’s website.
There’s an enhanced credibility when you hear Tampa Bay’s coaches and management say things like this. It’s not just lip service; the Lightning have developed guys this way before. Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times that “much like Palat, Panik and Johnson last year were kind of the leaders and the top line of the American Hockey League, Brett’s in that role.” Cooper reminded everyone that Connolly “prospered in the AHL last year with me as his coach, so I am a big fan.”
It’s funny: Cooper may have come from outside hockey, but he has already fostered the kind of connections that typically define the tightly webbed NHL. He coached NHLers Erik Condra and Pat Maroon when they were hopefuls playing for the Bandits. Cooper knows his goalie Bishop’s father from his time in St. Louis, where Bishop Sr. was part of the Bandits’ ownership group.8 Before the Blackhawks game, Chicago’s Mike Kostka described his former coach in glowing terms. “I can’t say a bad word about him as much as I’d like to,” he told the Times‘s Damian Cristodero.
Of course, just as with a young prospect facing his first full season in the league, there’s exactly zero guarantee that Cooper will find anywhere near the same success at this level that he has in the past. (After all, “the same success” would basically mean he’d have to win a Stanley Cup in, like, his first two seasons.) The Lightning are a team whose defense and goaltending have been among the league’s worst over the past few years. Cooper vowed to change that by instilling the old-timey take-no-prisoners attitude that some of his minor league teams have had, but he’ll have to do so wisely. In the wake of an ugly injury to the Montreal Canadiens’ George Parros during an on-ice scrap, Yzerman has been one of the league’s most vocal general managers against pugilism in the game.
While Tampa Bay isn’t a hotbed of hockey scrutiny, following NHL realignment the team now plays in the revamped Atlantic9 Division, which means beaucoup trips to the fishbowl rinks of Canada. It will be trial by fire for Cooper, though he hopes to take to heart a piece of advice he got while speaking with one NHL exec.
“One GM told me,” he said, “and I’ll never forget this: ‘The NHL can be toxic and negative. You don’t have that in you. Don’t lose that.’ I’ll always take that with me.”
On the other hand, don’t take him for any sort of softy. After all, this is a guy who has hauled equipment and painted rinks and relocated himself and his family time and time again, all just so he could be a hockey coach.
“Problems arise all the time,” he said. “Don’t bitch about the adversity or the problem. Think of a solution.”
Cooper now has a roster that includes plenty of players who first met him as their minor league coach. They include Pierre-Cedric Labrie, a wild-haired hulk who was cut from a Quebec major junior team at 17, worked the overnight shift at a convenience store, clawed his way back into the Quebec league, and after another stop or two ultimately played for Cooper on the Calder Cup–winning Admirals. All this, and it was his coach’s background that most intrigued Labrie and his teammates.
“For a bunch of guys, it was a mystery,” Labrie said. “We just tried to ask him questions, like, what happened? But at every floor he wins, and he makes his way up.”
I asked whether he’d seen a change in his coach since they’d both been elevated to the NHL.
“He’s the same,” he said. “Same old Coop. And it works for him, so I don’t think he’ll change anything.”