Coach Jon Cooper's NHL future looks bright
It seems that if what's flying around Twitter on Monday afternoon -- reports from TSN's Darren Dreger, CBC's Elliotte Friedman, and others -- proves true, Jon Cooper will be named the new coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, and many think the choice came about because if GM Steve Yzerman didn't promote him to the NHL, someone on some team eventually would have.
Cooper has certainly earned this chance.
With Yzerman having pulled the plug on Guy Boucher, the buzz was that Lindy Ruff was Yzerman's first choice but if that didn't work out, Cooper -- who coached Tampa Bay's AHL club, the Syracuse Crunch -- would get the job. We'll eventually learn if that was, in fact, how Yzerman thought or if he had Cooper in mind from the outset. Cooper's resume alone merits consideration for any NHL vacancy. It's filled with championships and awards, including the AHL's Calder Cup last year when Tampa's affiliate was in Norfolk. It was a season highlighted by a pro hockey-record 28-game winning streak and a 16-3 playoff run, and Cooper interviewed last summer for the head coaching spots in both Edmonton and Washington.
The cliché that everyone in the game knows about the 45-year-old Cooper is that he's succeeded at every level. But not many people actually know him.
I do. I've known Jon Cooper for about 10 years, meeting and befriending him at perhaps the most fascinating stop of his career: when he coached the Texarkana Bandits of the North American Hockey League. He joined that club in their first season, 2003-04, and led them to the playoffs, the only NAHL expansion team to do so that year. He and I met the next season.
The NAHL is the oldest and largest junior league in the U.S., a sprawling loop that's a notch below the top junior league, the USHL, but it similarly prepares players for NCAA hockey programs. It's a long, long way from the NHL and it's the rare NAHLer who makes it to the top, but a few of Cooper's Bandits have, such as Ottawa's Erik Condra, who was on that first Bandits team, and Anaheim's Pat Maroon.
The NAHL now stretches from Pennsylvania to Alaska, from south Texas to North Dakota. It filled nearly the same space when both Cooper and I worked there in the early 2000s, but Texarkana was one of the more unusual spots on the league map.
The Bandits played in the arena on the Four States Fairgrounds, a big, metal-sided building with a tin roof that was never intended for hockey. "Barn" is a word that hockey people have long used as slang for their rinks, but this place was far more barn than rink. Its main business is hosting rodeos, horse shows and bull riding competitions. During thunderstorms, the power was likely to go out, making the Bandits the only team in organized hockey to have rain delays.
Four States lacked an experienced crew to set up the rink, so Cooper, his wife Jessie, and his coaching and office staffs had to assemble the boards and get on their knees to paint the lines and logos on the ice themselves.
But the biggest problem was that the arena's other commitments meant that the ice was only available to the club for three-and-a-half months each season, so the Bandits played lots of road games and had no practice time in their own town during the stretch drive every year.
"It was a real education on starting your coaching career at the lowest part of the pole," Cooper told me last summer. "Getting a Suburban, hooking up a trailer, loading the equipment and driving 120 miles one way to practice in Little Rock because that was the closest ice available. You had to end the year with long, long road trips."
As a result, Cooper's Bandits regularly got upended by their divisional rival, the powerhouse Texas Tornado, who still play at the NAHL's best facility in Frisco, TX, where the Dallas Stars also train.
"We had good teams, but when you didn't get to practice at all and you didn't get to do all the stuff that other teams could, you'd just fall behind," Cooper said. "It's hard to win in the playoffs. We'd still win 40-plus games a year, but we couldn't get past Texas."
Many of our discussions back then were about game situations and tactics and such; on rare occasions, I'd hear him grumble about the rain delays or the trips to Little Rock. But the unmistakable overall impression Cooper left and still leaves is how much he truly loves hockey and working to get the most out of players.
The Texarkana experience taught him a great deal about perseverance and handling adversity, and when the team's ownership -- which included former St. Louis Blues tough guy Kelly Chase and St. Louis-area businessman Mike Brooks -- moved the Bandits to a modern rink in suburban St. Louis for the 2005-06 campaign, Cooper was glad to have paid those dues.
"It was no surprise we won two straight Robertson Cup championships when we went to St. Louis," he said. "We probably could have won one or two in Texarkana. And once we got to St. Louis, we owned the Tornado. We had a facility to practice in all year and made ourselves better."
A native of Prince George, BC, who played school hockey for the legendary Notre Dame Hounds of Wilcox, Saskatchewan, Cooper's winning ways behind the bench began in 1999 when he was named High School Coach of the Year by the Lansing State Journal after guiding Lansing Catholic Central to its first regional hockey title in 25 years. It was a part-time gig while he was practicing law full-time. (He had earlier worked a couple of years on Wall Street after graduating from Hofstra University on Long Island with a business administration degree).
In 2001, Cooper won the USA Hockey national Junior B championship coaching the Metro Jets in Waterford Township, MI. He took over the prestigious Honeybaked Midget Major program in Oak Park, MI, leading it to a top ranking for most of one year. When Texarkana called, he closed his law practice and began coaching full time.
After his second NAHL title and twice being named the league's Coach of the Year, Green Bay of the USHL came calling in 2008. "Here I was in St. Louis, loved the town, loved everything about it," Cooper recalled. "I couldn't see myself leaving. But they phoned and I went through the whole process. I think I was a real wild card to get the job. But I ended up getting it and it was tough to leave. I'd been with the Bandits five years. They were my closest friends. I think they were upset, but they knew if I wanted my career to advance, I had to move on. Unfortunately it was the USHL, a rival league."
The Gamblers had been the worst team in the USHL the previous season, with 32 points. As both coach and GM, Cooper engineered an historic 50-point turnaround, winning 39 games and the regular season title. The team won it again the next season as well as the Clark Cup as USHL champions. Cooper was twice named the league's GM of the Year.
That's when Yzerman called after he had taken over the Lightning and was looking to hire a coach for his AHL club. As with probably every hockey job he's gotten, Cooper didn't campaign for it. He wasn't looking to leave. The opportunity found him.
"It was tough to leave Green Bay," he says. The Gamblers play in one of the best non-NHL facilities in hockey, the Resch Center. Plus. Jessie had just given birth to their son, Jonathan, who joined his older twin sisters, Julia and Josephine, on the family's All-J.C. roster. In fact, all three kids were born on the off-days right before Cooper won championships, with the twins arriving before his second NAHL championship and right before he left St. Louis. "We weren't very good at family planning," he laughed.
"I think I was a wild card to get this job, too," he said of his AHL gig. "I had no pro experience, and I'm sure I was a little bit of a leap of faith for them, but they liked my resume, they liked what I had to offer."
"Initially, when we were gathering names, you talk to people around hockey that we respect and ask for names, and Coop's name came up,'' Yzerman told Erik Erlensson of The Tampa Tribune. "You look at his record and say, 'This is interesting, we should talk to him.'
"Then, once we interviewed him, he really makes a good impression. He's a bright guy; he's very personable and has some good ideas. And after meeting with him and seeing his record, I wouldn't even say it was a gamble. He was a coach with a good record and good track record working with kids.''
A couple of those kids from last year's Norfolk team have made good impressions in the NHL this season, like Lightning winger Cory Conacher, the AHL's MVP and top rookie last year, and the Maple Leafs' Mike Kostka, who's not exactly a kid at 27, but he's won an important spot on Toronto's blueline during his first NHL season. Seven other current members of the Lightning played for Cooper last season at Norfolk.
Well, what are Cooper's good ideas? How does he keep winning? What defines Jon Cooper hockey?
"That's a tough question," he laughed. "Jon Cooper hockey likes to win. There's no secret. You can ask anyone who's coached against me, the kind of style that my teams play. I would throw aggressive in there, I would throw in in-your-face. I would throw in 'We're tough.' If I could find a perfect marriage between the '80s Edmonton Oilers and the '70s Philadelphia Flyers, that's the way we play.
"And I think to coincide with that, I'm a huge believer in mastering your own game plan and letting everybody try and worry about you. I don't put much stock worrying about other teams. Naturally, everybody has their systems, but ultimately if you can get your team to play your system better than the other team plays theirs, I think that weighs in your favor.
"If you ask if I'm a disciplinarian as opposed to a players' coach, I would say I've grown into a little more of a players' coach, but I don't like to compare like that," he said. "I think I'm a mutual respect coach. I work hard and I have a lot of respect for the players, regardless of the ups and downs, and I try to get that from the players as well. If we have mutual respect for each other, it has to be earned. You just can't talk about it.
"A lot of magical things can happen, I've seen that with the teams I've coached and it's been reciprocal. In that regard, that goes back to one of my core philosophies on how to coach a team -- respect from everybody all the way around, from management, to players, to coaches -- it's extremely important."
"The players he has coached are fiercely loyal to him and would go to the wall for him immediately," wrote Lindsay Kramer who covers the Crunch for The Syracuse Post-Standard.
"I have the same values and beliefs in how to coach and how to manage players and it's worked at every level," Cooper said. "Of course, I've learned things along the way. I can't say 10 years ago when I was coaching Junior B I could have coached in the AHL, that's not the case. But what I've done is taken my core of beliefs in how teams should be run, how players should be treated and how the game should be played and I've pulled something out of every year to make me better. It hasn't let me down yet."
And Cooper isn't the kind of person to let others down, either, not only professionally but personally. He's no softy, but he is a genuine good guy who people like.
"People have been unreal to me, especially all the people I met along the way at the youth level, high school, junior, midget, who have always kept in touch," he said. "They're dedicated people who have a lot of passion for the game who are willing to do what it takes to help the game grow and help players succeed and that's what makes the game great."
Jon Cooper is one of those people. Folks around the NHL will now see that first hand. But when we spoke last summer, he's was only grateful to the Lightning for the opportunity to coach in the AHL, a level he never planned on reaching as he painted logos on the ice in Texarkana.
"I just enjoy the game," he said. "I enjoy the year-to-year challenge and the people I'm working with. So it doesn't matter what level you're at. You could be at midgets; you could be in the NHL. If you just enjoy who you're with, who you're working for and what you're doing, it's all fun. It's great."