page contents
skip navigation
Home Players & Parents Coaches Officials Team USA Membership Safety About Help

Before coaching the Lightning, Jon Cooper cut his teeth in juniors

04/11/2013, 1:45pm MDT
By Greg Auman

TAMPA — Think of them as non-traditional letters of recommendation.
Long before his hiring on March 25 as an NHL head coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jon Cooper put in his time in the AHL, and before that, the CSHL, NAHL and USHL. The one letter that never changed? The Ws he consistently put together through humble but wildly successful years in junior hockey, setting the foundation for his current challenge at pro hockey’s highest level.
“One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, coming up the ranks, is not to take anything for granted,” said Cooper, 45, after a morning practice just weeks into his new job. “You started out coaching a high school team, riding a school bus to games. My first junior team, in Texarkana, I pulled a Suburban with all our equipment 120 miles one way just to practice in Little Rock. One way.”
Nearby rinks and reasonable travel are easier to come by in the NHL, and Cooper can appreciate his new amenities. He is the only coach to win titles at all three tiers of American junior hockey — with the Metro Jets, the St. Louis Bandits and the Green Bay Gamblers. His coaching career started in near-anonymity, but more importantly, with hard work and a constant eye on improvement.
“Myself and my staff, we’d flood the rink, paint the rink, my wife would do it. We’d be up ‘til 4 or 6 in the morning, just getting the rink ready,” he said. “My first three or four years of my career, I never got paid. You do it for the love of the game, the passion for the game. The higher you go, the buildings get nicer. … You could pretty much fit the hotel you were staying in [in juniors] in the room I actually stay in now. I laugh about that.”
When Cooper wasn’t practicing his team, he practiced as a defense attorney until as recently as 2003, politely refusing the gas money his first hockey owners wanted to give him.
Junior hockey is a small world, so Cooper is constantly running into familiar faces from his stops along the coaching ladder. In a recent game against Ottawa, he saw Erik Condra, who played for him in Midgets with Honeybaked Hockey in Detroit and in juniors in Texarkana. Other NHL teams will bring other players he knew as teenagers who have made the same rise he’s made.
Cooper’s best memories from junior hockey are the investments he and his coaches and players made in a team, literally building a program from scratch and eventually leaving it as a perennial champion.
“That’s probably the most gratifying, the players you’ve kept in touch with all the years,” he said. “You think about a lot of the trials and tribulations you have, and it makes you stronger. It makes you appreciate what you have now. I attribute a lot of the successes I’ve had to the struggles I had when you start out.”
After Cooper was hired by the Lightning, he was curious what had gotten him in the door — about what had given him the chance to get the job with a strong interview.
Tampa Bay’s leadership pointed to two things: his uncanny success at all levels, but also his international experience. Cooper was a head coach for USA Hockey with the Under-17 team at the Five Nations tournament in Slovakia and Czech Republic and then served as an assistant with U-18s. He also helped coach USA Hockey’s InLine team to a title under Darren Turcotte in Budapest.
“It was awesome. An unreal experience,” said of his time in Hungary, not realizing then that his experience there would help him land the biggest job a hockey coach can aspire to.
“And if it wasn’t for USA Hockey having faith in me to coach some of their international teams, I’m not sure I would even got through the door here.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related News

Most Popular Articles


08/25/2015, 3:30pm MDT
By USA Hockey

No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official.  Some possess more of these skills and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.

The national official staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.

Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.

An example of this type of unacceptable behavior occurred last season. A Level 2 adult official tended to work his games with a chip on his shoulder. He often created confrontation with coaches, alienated his younger partners with inaccurate advice and disregarded their help in attempting to get some calls and rule applications right. Even though the help they were providing was correct, he chose to maintain his incorrect position that affected the outcome of several games. He also tended to identify certain players and single them out for various infractions and/or on-ice lectures as a means of emphasizing his authority.

Once the trends were identified, concerns were voiced by several parents and coaches to the local assigner and supervisor, who acknowledged they had never seen the official’s work, but would keep throwing him out there working the same teams and levels that had expressed concerns regarding his attitude. This included intentionally assigning him a playoff game involving the coach who was the most vocal in expressing concerns. This official was then instructed to “throw the coach out if he says anything.”

That playoff game went without a hitch – a tight 2-1 game with a couple of close off-side plays and maybe an icing or two missed. In the post-game dressing room, the official in question, in the presence of his partners and the officials scheduled to work the next game, said, “It’s always a great day when you can make one or both of the coaches mad. It’s too bad the white team coach didn’t want to play along today.” The partners sat there in silence until finally a 12-year-old Level 1 official who was working the next game said, “I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to bait coaches.”

The official got dressed quickly and left the room without saying another word. Kind of ironic that it was the innocent 12-year-old that seemed to “get it” and instill a sense of accountability among those in the room. Imagine how any 12-year-old player feels on the ice when they see the official(s) displaying an attitude that is simply not to the standard the game deserves. And yes, more often than not, they can see through those who do not have the level of integrity expected.

Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.

USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.

In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.

The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.

As we head into the 2015-16 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, welcome back and we look forward to a great season.

The Northstars Never Miss a Trip To Eagle River

08/29/2015, 11:00am MDT
By Greg Bates - Special to

The Bloomington, Ill., team played their in fifth straight Pond Hockey Championships in 2015

Paralympian Pauls Featured on CBS News

08/28/2015, 10:15am MDT

Gold medalist interviewed on national television

Tag(s): News & Features