Why Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper is hockey's most interesting coach

Puck Daddy

Jon Cooper is an NHL hockey coach with a winning record for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Jon Cooper has a law degree.

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He’s from British Columbia. He played lacrosse at Hofstra University in West Hempstead, N.Y.

Jon Cooper is … the most interesting man in all of hockey. Which is something that has been immortalized forever for us to enjoy by the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.

Regardless of the joking element of this ad, it’s true. Cooper is a different cat – a smart man without a hockey pedigree in an organization full of hockey blue bloods.

And this is what makes him important to the Lightning. Not only does he has the team on the winning track, he also has the right type of personality to push the game in a non-traditional market. Is he too good to be true? The answer, in some respects, is yes. 

“Everyone on the team needs to be active in that area to help sell the game, but your coach is a big part of your personality,” forward Brenden Morrow said. “And when you have a guy like Coop who is outgoing and easy to talk to and down to earth, it makes it a little more personable for everyone.”

The way Cooper describes his first meeting with Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman – the seventh-leading scorer in NHL history – for the Norfolk Admirals' head coaching job is laugh-worthy.

“When I came down to meet with Steve for the interview, then I saw his name on the door and in the office and he said … ‘Hello, I’m Steve Yzerman.’ Then I had that pregnant pause in my head that said ‘yeah, no s--t,’” he said. “It was awesome, but he was so gracious.”

It would be easy to get intimidated by Yzerman. The man has won three Stanley Cups and is a Red Wings legend. Also in the Lightning organization is NHL 500-goal man Pat Verbeek (Assistant GM) and Tom Kurvers (Senior Advisor to the GM who played 659 NHL games).

And then there’s Cooper, who was never close to the NHL before he became a coach.

But if he needs to voice an opinion to any of his bosses he has the green light. Maybe it’s the argumentative lawyer in him. To Cooper, constructive conversation as a way to make a solution.

“I’ve never been one to hold back I guess,” Cooper said. “One thing you learn in this business is you definitely have to pick your battles, which ones you want to dig your heels into and which ones you have to take a step back. I think I would be doing everyone an injustice if I didn’t say my piece.”

Jan 9, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper reacts on the bench against the Washington Capitals during the first period at Amalie Arena. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Jan 9, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper reacts on the bench against the Washington Capitals during the first period at Amalie Arena. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

In some ways Cooper has lucked into his role as the coach of the NHL’s hottest young team. Tampa’s roster is loaded with 25-and-under talent with Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov.

But the dude has paid his hockey dues in the minors, and advanced because Yzerman thought outside the box to hire him to be the organization’s AHL coach in 2010. And then saw him guide his young prospects and make them NHL-ready players.

Meanwhile, he has garnered the respect of the team’s veteran supplements, like defenseman Jason Garrison, forwards Morrow and Ryan Callahan, along with goaltender Ben Bishop.

“I think part of it is we’re so young we don’t know any better and as a core, this group has been together through the minors,” Cooper said. “I think what really helped the transition of this team was all the guys we brought in from (Valtteri) Filppula, Callahan, (Brian) Boyle, Morrow, (Anton) Stralman, Garrison, that group has helped transform where we were.”

Where they were was a non-playoff team when Cooper took over. And he turned them into the second seed in the Atlantic Division last year.

Granted, he’s had his problems. Martin St. Louis wanting out (though it likely had little to do with Cooper) still feels like a gut punch to the organization. But there are coaches who just coach, and there are coaches who just ‘get’ their civic duty to their team and community in a smaller non-hockey market. Both types are fine as long as they win, Cooper is the latter.

He can easily charm a reporter by shaking his hand and going ‘Mr. Cooper, how are you?’ And while there’s the chance it could be deemed insincere, at least you know he did his homework on who he’s talking with. Yes, we share a last name, and he remembered a talk we had at a rookie camp.  

It’s this personality that has enabled him to help further grow hockey in Tampa.

“I’ve touched every level of hockey. And for many years of my career that’s all I ever knew – how are we going to grow the game, how are we going to sell tickets, how are we going to make this team win?” Cooper said. “I think when you get to the NHL you can’t turn that off.”

This is a team with history and a Stanley Cup. But now it has an opportunity to not just have that one glorious moment. With its core, provided it can lock up Stamkos, the Lightning can have sustained success for years. And they have the coach with the most interesting background to guide them in that direction.  

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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