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NHL all-star coach Cooper has eyes on top prize

Jon Cooper won't have far to go to find his spot behind the bench coaching Team Atlantic in Sunday's NHL all-star game at Amelie Arena in downtown Tampa, Fla. He lives just five kilometres from the rink.
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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper argues with official Mike Hasenfratz (2) about a late line change during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game agains the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Jon Cooper won't have far to go to find his spot behind the bench coaching Team Atlantic in Sunday's NHL all-star game at Amelie Arena in downtown Tampa, Fla.

He lives just five kilometres from the rink.

Now in his fifth full season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Cooper made sure to remind one of his friends in the NHL coaching fraternity, Vegas Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant, who heads the Pacific Division all-stars, how lucky he is that he won't have to pack his bags for a hockey trip to Florida.

"When we got named to be all-stars (as coaches) I sent him a text and said, 'hey Turk, enjoy your four-hour flight and I'll enjoy my four-minute drive.' We had a good laugh," said Cooper.

Four of Cooper's Lightning players - goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenceman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were picked for the Atlantic squad. Hedman suffered a knee injury Jan. 11 in a game against Calgary and won't get to play.

The Atlantic all-stars will play the other Eastern Conference team from the Metropolitan Division in a 20-minute game of 3-on-3 hockey. The winner plays the Central-Pacific Western Conference winner for a $1 million winner-takes-all prize.

"The incentive is to have fun and in these things the players' pride takes over at some point," said Cooper, who will have his parents from Prince George, Bob and Christine, in the sold-out rink for the all-star festivities this weekend.

"Maybe the first couple minutes of the 3-on-3s will be wide-open but then the players will dig in once it gets down to the end. You just sit back and marvel at the skill of the players and the best part is we get to do it in front of our home fans."

Sunday's all-star game is not the first time Cooper has coached a select team of NHL players. Last May, he headed a Team Canada coaching staff that included Gallant, Dave King, and Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol at the IIHF world championship in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany. Canada, the two-time defending champions, lost to Sweden 2-1 in the final in a shootout and came back with the silver medal.

Cooper first got to know Gallant when they served as assistant coaches under Todd McLellan with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September 2016. Now Gallant and the Golden Knights are the talk of the NHL, exceeding all expectations while pushing the Lightning for first overall.

"I really enjoyed working with him at World Cup and I thought he was a great coach, a great guy to be around," said Cooper. "I brought him on for world's and we had a blast there and almost took the whole thing and we've stayed close ever since."

Cooper's World Cup and world championship commitments meant less time off between seasons but the chance to work with his peers in both those tournaments proved invaluable.

"Those are events where you get to surround yourself with NHL coaches and NHL players, really good players off other teams, and you normally wouldn't have that experience," he said. "I think that's helped me in the way we're doing things this year, you take little tidbits and get fresh ideas from players and coaches and that's been really good for me."

Through 46 games, the Lightning sported the NHL's second-best record (31-12-3), one point behind Vegas. Fans in Florida have been spoiled under Cooper's tenure. Since he took over from Guy Boucher as head coach on March 25, 2013, Cooper has compiled a career NHL regular season record of 219 wins 132 losses and 38 overtime losses - a .613 winning percentage.

Under Cooper, Tampa made the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons. He took them to the finals in 2015, made the third round in 2016, and went as far as the first round his first full season in 2013-14. Other than the year he joined the Lightning to finish off the last 16 games in 2012, Cooper's only NHL playoff miss was last year when Tampa's 94-point season was not quite good enough.

"In the spot we're in now, we're not guaranteed to make the playoffs but you can have a hiccup or two and still have a chance to get in," said Cooper. "But when you're on the other side and chasing teams there's no margin for error. It's hard to climb over multiple teams. It's much better to be where we are right now.

"Last year on Feb. 2 we were last place in the conference and then we went on an unreal tear and missed it by a point," he said.

Cooper said there was some carryover effect from that late-season 8-1-1 surge. Another key to the Lightning's quick start out of the gate has been the goaltending of Vasilevskiy, who become the designated starter when Tampa traded Ben Bishop to the L.A. Kings in May. The two goalies split the No. 1 role evenly last season.

Having a healthy Stamkos has been another gamechanger. A knee injury limited him to just 17 games last year. This season the captain of the Bolts has 17 goals and 54 points (tied for fifth in the NHL) through 46 games.

Cooper also mentioned the influence of right winger Ryan Callahan, who missed all but 18 games last season with an upper-body injury, and the difference he's made adding leadership to the fourth line. The former New York Rangers captain has played 36 of Tampa's first 46 games this season.

Now just past midseason, the Lightning are listed as 5/1 favourites to run the playoff table this spring.

"Hopefully we can keep it going here, it would be unreal to bring a Stanley Cup back to Tampa and to Prince George, I'd have to bring it back to the Kin Centre," said Cooper.

"The one thing that's been great about this year's team is we've defined roles and they've all accepted them and that's really helped us," he said. "We've kind of gone through that cycle where we went to the finals and the year before we went to the conference finals and last year we missed and I think we found out a lot about ourselves. I know I found out a lot about myself, I had to change and had to reinvent myself as a coach.

"Our general manager (Steve Yzerman) did a really good job of moving some players and we had to bring some new ones in and that kind of changed our room for the positive. Good character players were brought in and we've stayed healthy and we weren't last year, we were decimated. Until the Hedman injury we've stayed somewhat healthy and that's really helped us."

Yzerman's off-season free agent signings brought in 12-year veteran defenceman Dan Girardi from the Rangers and left winger Chris Kunitz, a four-time Stanley Cup champion who played nine seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins after four seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.

Yzerman also locked up centre Tyler Johnson, who signed a seven-year deal. The former Spokane Chief has been on a hot streak with 12 goals and 16 assists in his last 20 games.

"He's been outstanding - we've been together ever since he's been a pro," said Cooper. "He had a little bit of a slow start to the season and we actually moved him to the wing and he's taken off," said Cooper. "Since Dec. 1st or 2nd he's second in the league in scoring in that time."

Cooper's career path to become an NHL head coach is unique and unprecedented in any professional sport. He attended Hofstra University on Hempstead, N.Y., on a lacrosse scholarship, graduating in 1989 with a business degree. As aspiring sports agent, he put his business training to work trading securities in Wall Street. In the late 1990s, after he tried unsuccessfully to fill a head coaching position in the B.C. Hockey League with the Williams Lake Timberwolves, Cooper enrolled at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he earned his law degree and spent 11 years as a public defender.

It was a judge, Thomas Brennan, who changed Cooper's destiny from lawyer to coach. Brennan got to know Cooper while watching him defend clients in Lansing courtrooms. He learned of Cooper's interest in hockey and asked if he wanted to coach his son's team at Lansing Catholic high school. Cooper took on the assignment and led the team to their first regional title in 25 years in 1999. The following year, he took over the HoneyBaked triple-A midget team in Detroit.

Success followed Cooper wherever he went in the American junior ranks and he is the only coach to win national titles at all three levels. He captured the Clark Cup USHL (Tier 1) championship in 2010 with the Green Bay Gamblers and turned pro the following season in the AHL as head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning's top farm team. In his second season as AHL coach of the year he led the Admirals to the Calder Cup championship in 2012. Tampa switched its AHL affiliation to the Syracuse Crunch for the 2012-13 season and the Crunch was leading the league with a 39-18-3-5 record when Cooper was promoted to take over a Lightning team that ranked 28th in the 30-team NHL.

Cooper, 50, is under contract for a sixth season next year. He's currently the second-longest tenured NHL head coach after Chicago's Joel Quenneville. Last week, he took advantage of a rare five-day break in the schedule and booked a three-day stay in a hotel on the Gulf Coast at Naples, Fla., where he and his wife and their three kids spent some quality time with his parents, who made trip down from Prince George.

Cooper grew up on Babine Crescent near Spruceland shopping centre in the house where his folks still live. He attended school at Spruceland elementary, Lakewood junior secondary and would have enrolled at Prince George secondary but left to play high school hockey at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask.

Cooper and his wife Jessie have twin nine-year-old daughters, Julia and Josephine, and a seven-year-old son, Jonny, who plays hockey on a team coached by former Lightning centre Vincent Lecavalier.

"He started playing last year and he's enjoying it," said Copper. "He's spoiled because he gets to see and do a lot of things probably other kids don't but he's really enjoying it. Vinny is his coach because his son plays and we have (Lightning goalie) Peter Budaj and Dan Girardi - both their kids play on the team. It's pretty sweet."

Quotable Cooper

On how the Vegas Golden Knights have emerges as a Stanley Cup contender as an expansion team...

"Every team got to protect between eight and 10 players, but on top of that, every team had three or four guys they had to protect because they had 'no trade' in their contracts. For us, we had to protect Stamkos, we had to protect a couple other guys, and I'm not saying we would have let those guys up, but some teams protected guys because they had to.

"All of a sudden, the expansion team gets 30 picks and you only have to get 18 of them right because that's all that's making your team. But you have to tip your hat to them because they did pick the right players. It was really set up for them to succeed."

On plans for the Lightning to host an outdoor game in central Florida...

"They are talking about it and hopefully something comes about, and January or February would be the best time to do it. This is the best time of year, it's the reverse (of Canada), you don't want to be here in the summer, it's too hot."

On what it's like to coach the Lightning ...

"Tampa is a great place to coach. It's led by our owner (Jeffrey Vinik) and the people here love the team, they love what the team does in the community, and love what it does on the ice. I remember the excitement of going to the Cup final a few years ago and what it did for the city, it was a real cool experience. So to bring us back to the potential to get there, it's really exciting - it pushes you."

 

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper stands on the ice with his team during NHL hockey training camp in Brandon, Fla., Friday morning, Sept. 15, 2017. (Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)