When Steve Yzerman hired Jon Cooper on March 21, 2013, the predominant question surrounding this announcement was “Who’s he?” Rather than go for a big name or a familiar retread, Yzerman as is his custom, broke from tradition and hired a guy that few people knew.
Jon Cooper had been coaching in the United States Hockey League for the Green Bay Gamblers.
Taking over that spot in 2008, Cooper led the Gamblers to the USHL League Championship in his second season in 2010.
The Tampa Bay Lightning then hired Cooper to coach their AHL affiliate, Norfolk Admirals in 2010. In his second season with the Admirals in 2012, Cooper led Norfolk to the Calder Cup as the AHL Champion. Not only did his team win the league championship, but Cooper was named Coach of the Year in the AHL.
Prior to beginning his third season, the Lightning changed their AHL affiliation to the Syracuse Crunch. Cooper still leading his young charges, had an AHL best record of 39-18-3 when he was named as successor to Guy Boucher and became the eighth coach in Tampa Bay Lightning history.
This past year, his first full season at the helm for the Lightning, Cooper led this overachieving team to 2nd place in the Atlantic Division with 101 total points. Nobody expected that kind of success. Throw in the fact that you came into the season without a clear #1 Goalie. Throw in the fact that your best player would break his leg and be lost for 45 games, more than half the season. Lastly, throw in that your captain would throw a hissy fit and demand to be traded with 20 games left in the season. Nobody would have been disappointed if you finished the season still able to skate, let alone second in a division that includes Boston, Detroit and Montreal. Nobody had lofty expectations.
But not this guy. Cooper has succeeded everywhere he has coached. That includes high school, USHL, AHL, and I’m fairly certain but unable as of yet to verify, an adult beer league. This guy wins. As simple as that. He leads teams to championships at every level he has coached or so it seems.
Perhaps it’s his demeanor. When watching Cooper behind the bench, I can’t tell what the score is, whether the Bolts are up a couple goals or down three. Cooper looks the same. I’ll bet his gum can say different but the guy never seems to lose his cool.
It seems that is what his players respond to and it shows on the ice. In years past, when the Lightning was down entering the third period, for all intents and purposes the game was lost. Not now, not with this guy leading the way. He wins. Simple as that.
He is unflappable. He is unflappable and his team responds. It isn’t just the current Lightning team because he’s won everywhere he’s coached. No word yet on the beer league, but he won the Calder Cup in the AHL. Okay, it’s not the Stanley Cup but I bet it felt like that for the Admirals of Norfolk who played their hearts and souls for this guy. Some of them are now on the current Lightning roster.
He won the Clark Cup in the USHL. Not only is this not the Stanley Cup, it isn’t even the Calder Cup, but I bet it meant the world to the players that, yes, played their butts off for this guy.
I’ll even go out on a limb and say he won the “Whatever’s on Draught” Cup in that beer league. And yes, those guys, with full time jobs, played their middle aged bodies off for this guy. Simply put, he is a leader of men who lace up skates and play this wonderful game.
Tomorrow night, the NHL Awards night happens in Las Vegas. Cooper is a finalist for the award given to the coach of the year. If there was a line on the Jack Adams-Coach of the Year Award, I’d bet on Cooper.
I know odds are the winner will be Patrick Roy. Nobody ever asked “Who’s he?” when talking about Roy. Hall of Fame player and he led a huge turnaround for the Colorado Avalanche this year. No doubt that Roy and his team had a great year. But they had a #1 Goalie coming out of pre-season. They didn’t lose their superstar for 45 games. Their captain didn’t demand a trade.
The other finalist is Mike Babcock, Coach of the Detroit Red Wings. I discount Babcock because the Red Wings played well below expectations this year. They barely made the playoffs when all the experts had them fighting Boston for supremacy in the newly formed Atlantic Division. That didn’t happen.
I’m putting my money on Cooper. Why, you ask? Because he wins. It really is that simple. The guy knows how to bring out the best of his players. He wins. Yes, I’ll put my money on Cooper and even if he doesn’t win this award, he’ll continue to win. Stanley Cups, Jack Adams, whatever hardware is out there. I don’t think he expects anything less. Of himself or his players. That’s what drives him and them.
They say coaches are hired to be fired. That much is true, so one day Cooper may not be leading the Lightning anymore. I’m sure it’ll be after a long and illustrious career. I’m also sure it’ll be after bringing the Cup to Tampa. Once, twice, maybe more. Something tells me that it still won’t be enough for Cooper so, if he ever goes back to a beer league, count me in, Coop. I’ll give you everything I got. I just want to beat those CPA’s from Sarasota.