After the Green Bay Gamblers’ hockey players took and lost the lead in the late game, they received a simple order from their trainer, a former attorney named Jon Cooper: Meet at a local at 7 a.m. for your next home workout park
When they got there, the only trace of Cooper was a note left under a puck in the middle of a soccer field.
“This is how it feels when we show up to every game and you don’t!” it read. “Find out!”
“That completely turned our season around,” said Pat McCadden, captain of the 2009-10 Gamblers team. Their season ended with a Clark Cup, the championship of the United States Hockey League, the best junior league in the country.
Cooper would win the 2020 Stanley Cup a decade later in his seventh season as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“That’s just co-op, man,” said Jeff Mitchell, Green Bay president for hockey operations who was part of the group Cooper hired in 2008. “He’s got that special sauce.”
Since leaving the law in 2003 to devote himself entirely to ice hockey, Cooper has won championships with every team he coached: two levels of junior hockey, the American Hockey League and the NHL
When asked to list the secrets of his success, Cooper smiled slightly and gave his admittedly stock reply.
“One thing, understand life,” he said. “Two, a loyal dog. And three, a good goalkeeper. “
Those who played for Cooper, hired him, and witnessed his craftsmanship say that his ability to make adjustments and connect with all types of players was a key factor in his success.
Recognition…Green Bay players
“To be a good teacher, you have to be able to get the most out of your players in different ways,” said Kelly Chase, a former NHL player who owned part of the first team that Cooper played after retiring Lawyer trained. “Coop understands how to do it.”
Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Cooper never played organized hockey beyond high school, despite playing lacrosse at Hofstra University on Long Island.
While Cooper was serving as a public defender in Lansing, Michigan, a district judge asked him to coach his son’s high school team. The Lansing State Journal named Cooper Michigan Coach of the Year after his first year in business.
Chase, a friend of Cooper’s since high school at a boarding school in Saskatchewan, called a few years later.
Chase and several other investors had bought a North American Hockey League expansion team in Texarkana, Texas.
Cooper’s duties as coach of the Texarkana Bandits included painting the ice, selling season tickets, and driving a van to practice.
Pat Maroon, who is in his second season with The Lightning, first played for Cooper at the age of 17 in the Bandits’ 2005-06 season. In his second season under Cooper, he developed from a self-described overweight and slow child to the most valuable player in the NAHL.
“He had all 24 boys play for him every night,” Maroon told an Edmonton newspaper in 2016. It’s one of the reasons I am where I am now. “
One of the keys to Cooper’s success, Chase said, is that he keeps learning.
Chase recalled once driving a car with Cooper and thought the coach’s musical choices were strange. Cooper told him it was what his team, mostly teenagers at the time, heard in the locker room. “If not,” Chase remembered Cooper and said, “You can’t figure it out.”
McCadden, now deputy head coach at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said Cooper knew how to be good with people and that his composure put the players at ease.
“So many coaches go insane to an offside call in the first stage, but Coop has been so good in whatever situation we have been in,” said McCadden.
After three seasons with Lightning’s AHL partner, Cooper’s unusual career arc reached the highest level of hockey with 16 games remaining in the 2012-13 season.
Cooper had instant credibility to the Blitz as 10 of their players were with him in the minors in Norfolk, Virginia and Syracuse, NY. He ultimately earned credibility with veterans as well, including Steven Stamkos, who has been with Tampa Bay since 2008 and has been a captain since 2014.
“At that level, you all have Type A personalities,” said George Gwozdecky, one of the Blitz’s assistant coaches during Cooper’s first two full seasons in the NHL. “He has the gift of being able to bring all these A-types together.” That’s a big part of his talent. “
Success came early for Cooper in Tampa Bay, but not a championship – unlike anywhere else. In its first full season, the Lightning reached the playoffs again after a two-year break. They lost to Chicago in the 2015 Stanley Cup final. They won 62 games and the Presidents Trophy in 2018-19, but were defeated by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs.
Stamkos said Cooper had improved his coaching skills over the years, creating cheap matchups in the playoffs, and knowing what buttons to press with his players. He had the benefit of continuity as several key players – Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson – were with the Lightning throughout his tenure.
Many successful coaches have benefited from working with star players and Cooper is no exception. Former trophy winners are on his squad: Vezina (Andrei Vasilevskiy), Maurice “Rocket” Richard (Stamkos) and Norris (Hedman).
But Cooper’s teams made it with less than full strength. The Lightning played the 2013-14 playoffs, although Stamkos only played 37 games. Last year, Stamkos was injured on February 25th and didn’t play again until Game 3 of the final when he only did five shifts and scored only one shot of the game.
“All of these new situations he was faced with and faced made him all the better equipped to be one of the best hockey coaches in the world,” said Julien BriseBois, the general manager of Lightning who served the AHL team during Coopers tenure there.
In fact, among coaches with at least 500 career games, only retired Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman (.657) had a better percentage of points than Cooper (.645) that season.
It’s unlikely Cooper or anyone else can rival Bowman’s nine Stanley Cups, but it seems more likely to keep improving his career path.
“It’s an on-going process with him,” said Stamkos.