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.
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