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A cherished hockey voice is lost, but love affair with a game lasts

TAMPA — Funny, the kid in the basement never had to answer questions about a loss.

Every playoff series somehow worked out exactly the way he envisioned. He would unlatch the door on his mom’s dryer and fire pucks into the opening until achieving the desired score. The white appliance eventually turned black from all the scuff marks off errant shots, but Boston (his favorite team) and Toronto (his dad’s choice) usually made it to the Stanley Cup final in the boy’s version of a hockey postseason.

And along the way — this was non-negotiable — the voice of “Hockey Night in Canada”’s Bob Cole played in the youngster’s head whenever a puck got past the imaginary goaltender and clanked the back wall of the dryer.

“I would chart every series, and I would call the games in my head. Except it wasn’t in my head. I would say it out loud,” he said. “And when you’re growing up in Canada and you’re imagining a Game 7, you always called the game the way Bob Cole would call it.”

This is how Jon Cooper fell in love with hockey.

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It’s late on Thursday night, and the Lightning have just lost their third consecutive game to Florida in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Cooper dutifully answers questions in a postgame news conference before veering off script.

“I was hoping this was going to be a little better situation, because we just lost a game in the playoffs, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of Bob Cole,” Cooper said. “I know it has nothing to do with this game, but it kind of does.

“Because I’m probably not coaching in this league if it wasn’t (for) growing up and having a passion for this game because of the voice of that man.”

Cole, 90, passed away on Wednesday. His was the voice that serenaded a nation every Saturday night for nearly half a century as a broadcaster for the immensely popular “Hockey Night in Canada” program. Picture him as Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Football,” except Cole’s reign lasted three times as long.

Cooper’s unsolicited eulogy was captivating, not just for its heartfelt delivery, but also because we tend to picture Cooper coming to hockey later in life. He played lacrosse at Hofstra University in New York and went on to become an attorney in Michigan before breaking into hockey as a high school coach.

But his eventual path had been forged years earlier as a schoolboy in Prince George, British Columbia, about 500 miles north of Vancouver. While his younger brother was into skiing, Cooper described himself as a hockey nerd.

He collected thousands of hockey cards (he still has them stuffed away somewhere) and adored the Bruins because of Bobby Orr. Back in the days before cable and remote controls, the TV in the house was forever tuned to CBC on Saturday night with what was often the only televised hockey game of the week.

The Canucks may have been the closest thing to a local team, but “Hockey Night in Canada” was enamored with the Maple Leafs and Canadiens.

“The way he called games, the way he would say a player’s name, it was magical. I can’t really express what it meant to me,” Cooper said. “When it’s the only voice you’re hearing, you attach it to players and teams, and it becomes the voice of hockey for you.”

Thirteen years after accepting his first coaching job at Lansing Catholic High School in Michigan, Cooper had worked his way through a half-dozen minor-league jobs and was hired by the Lightning to replace Guy Boucher in 2013. He was inheriting a team with a handful of future Hall of Famers, but Cooper said he was never really starstruck until he met Cole in a pre-broadcast production meeting.

Unlike some coaches, Cooper was happy to tell Cole what line combos the Lightning would be using that night, and he delighted in listening to the broadcaster’s many stories. When Cole asked Cooper if he would like to visit the broadcast booth in the press box hanging from the ceiling at the Bell Centre in Montreal during a visit in 2018, Cooper did not hesitate.

“I was like, ‘Hell, yes!’” Cooper said.

Once upstairs, Cooper asked Cole if they could both don headsets for a photo. Because it was so early in the day, no one else was around, so Cooper had to walk around the wobbly gondola before finding a janitor who could take their picture.

“As happy as he made me feel by bringing me up there, I truly believe the feeling was mutual, because I think he knew his time (as a broadcaster) was coming to an end,” Cooper said. “I think he was happy knowing that there were people out there who cared for him, and cared about the work he had done. And I’ll never forget that. It was two people who had a passion for hockey from different generations, and we got to enjoy each other’s company.

“So when I was driving home from the rink (Thursday) morning and Boomer Gordon on NHL Network Radio said he had some bad news to pass along about the passing of Bob Cole, I felt at that moment like I had lost a little part of my soul.”

In a way, the story is coming full circle. While televised games are now omnipresent and no broadcaster is likely to have the kind of effect that Cole once did on generations of Canadian children, Cooper has often talked about watching hockey grow in Tampa Bay during the Lightning’s recent run of postseason successes.

Like a young Jon Cooper with Bobby Orr nearly 50 years ago, there are children in Tampa Bay and beyond who have fallen in love with the sport because of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“We go on the road and meet kids wearing a Stamkos jersey in Phoenix or a Kucherov jersey in Denver and I’m like, ‘You’re a Lightning fan in Phoenix?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah I fell in love with hockey when you guys were winning your Cups,’” Cooper said. “You realize then the impact winning a Cup can have. Kids waking up saying the Lightning are my team? That’s Jon Cooper falling in love with Boston and Bobby Orr because of Bob Cole.

“That’s how the love affair starts, and it sticks with you forever, and that’s what we’re hoping to do in Tampa.”

The idea that Cooper was willing to talk about Cole and their shared love of a game seemed even more genuine and heartfelt because it came after a loss when the Lightning were on the verge of elimination.

“It would have been great to have shared the moment after a win,” Cooper said. “But maybe it was a win after all, because I got to share the moment.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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