Jon Cooper Q&A: Lightning coach talks injuries, coaching, and life as a lawyer
- His résumé is as varied as it gets for an NHL head coach, but the Lightning's Jon Cooper doesn't lack passion for the game.
If told properly, the journey of Jon Cooper would exhaust far more words than a simple web column affords. It would dip into his youth as a multi-sport athlete in western Canada, span four years at Hofstra University on a lacrosse scholarship, and place him at a financial firm on Wall Street. It would then weave from law school and courtrooms in Michigan, to the highways of Texarkana, to rinks in St. Louis, Green Bay, Norfolk, Syracuse…well, where hasn't he been by now? It would continue, but certainly not end, with Cooper's current position as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have reached consecutive Eastern Conference finals under his guidance.
Now in his fourth full season with Tampa Bay, almost twice as long as he’s spent behind any other bench, Cooper chatted with SI.com Tuesday afternoon. The Lightning entered Christmas break at 17-15-3, besieged by injuries atop their lineup but only three points behind Boston for the third spot in a jumbled Atlantic Division race (and, mercifully, a weak one relative to the juggernaut Metro). Before a home-home back-to-back against Montreal and Toronto at Amalie Arena this week, Cooper hopscotched through topics as diverse – and seemingly random -- as his path itself.
SI: Tampa doesn’t necessarily lead the NHL in man games lost, but the current injury report is pretty staggering in terms of the caliber of player you’re missing. Steven Stamkos (knee surgery), Nikita Kucherov, Ben Bishop, Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan…how do you handle that as a coach?
JC: You can’t get too frustrated. You can’t treat anyone like they’re any less than anyone else on the team. That’s my biggest thing. You’ve got to make everyone feel part of this, and you can never use injuries as an excuse. Guys get hurt. Does it suck the guys we’ve had hurt? Yeah, it does. But it’s the Tampa Bay organization. It’s not just the guys who play opening night. There are 30 to 35 guys who get used during the year, and you’ve got to make them all feel part of it. That’s my biggest thing.
SI: What was your favorite part about working with Team North America [at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey]?
JC: The coolest moment the whole time was when [Colorado’s Nathan] MacKinnon scores the goal against Sweden. It was funny for me, because I was in a completely different role. As an assistant, I would stay afterwards with all the players. There was a group of us who’d play small games, and MacKinnon was one of them. You learn about different players when you spend a lot of time with them. MacKinnon, I watched him do that move just naturally in these small games that we’d play at the end.
When he scored that, I was like, "Holy s---, I’ve seen that before." Had I not been with Team North America, I would’ve been like, 'Oh nice move.' But he works on that. He’s worked on that growing up. I’d say that was probably the most exciting moment.
I would say the "awe" moment was the very first day at practice. We were in Montreal for our first on-ice practice. This is Sept. 5, with a bunch of guys who don’t know each other, have never played with each other, and it was fastest, most skilled practice I’d ever been a part of. I thought, "Ooo, this is different."
I’ll be hard-pressed to coach a team with that much talent again, if you really think about it. Every one of those guys will represent their country. A lot of those guys would’ve made their countries as it was, as young kids. And that’s what makes that team really special. That’s how much high-end talent we had. And they were just a fun, fun group to coach.
SI: You crossed paths with more than a few current NHLers during your early coaching days, like with the St. Louis Bandits and Green Bay Gamblers. Who’s someone that you’re particularly proud of having made it?
JC: Pat Maroon would be one, just because of his path. He was an oversized, overweight kid from St. Louis who never really played on the big triple-A teams. Then he came to us and worked himself into an NHL player. It’s pretty cool to see, to be honest. We became close with his family. I’m proud of what he’s done.
A couple nights ago, when we played Detroit, Nick Jensen who played for me on that Green Bay team, he made his NHL debut. That’s a proud papa moment.
SI: Let’s get into your background. Before coaching, you worked as a public defender. You’ve spoken before about the connection between addressing a jury and a room full of hockey players. What other lessons did you learn from that job?
JC: Public defending was survival. When I left law school [at Western Michigan], when I found out I passed the bar, I needed to make money. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I didn’t have a job to go to. But I’d partnered with a woman who was a lawyer, and she was giving me old clients she had. It’s just life lessons out of the gate. Nobody’s really helping you. You’re in front of the judge all the time. You probably have 15 different cases a day that you’re sifting through and meeting with people, trying to help them get through the system. They’re valuable jobs because of the experience you get. They’re not incredibly high-paying jobs. But you get them for three-to-six-month terms, and all of a sudden you’re meeting lawyers, you’re meeting prosecutors. There’s a lot of ins to the job.
SI: What was the toughest part?
JC: The plus side is you’re helping people. You feel good about that. The sad side is you get de-sensitized to some of the trouble they’re in, over and over. That’s the reality of it. The most sobering place, though, the reality check in becoming a defense attorney, was every time I had to go visit somebody in jail. That’s the eye-opener. It’s bars. It’s chains. It’s fences. It’s locks. It’s confinement. The one thing is, I know I got to leave every time when I left there. Everybody I was visiting wasn’t leaving. That’s pretty tough.
You’re just not prepared for that. Just the smell alone, I still know what it smells like. It’s just weird. It’s a whole different side of life. All of a sudden, you do that for a few years and it’s just a part of your job to go in there. The defense attorney stuff, it was just hardening me, which I didn’t like.
Ultimately, I didn’t have an unreal passion for it. I believe I was good at what I did, but I never believed I was great, because I didn’t have a complete passion for it. I knew a lot of people when I got out who did. I’m not sitting here saying I’m a great hockey coach, but I have a passion for the game. I have a passion for my job. I could do my job 24 hours a day and not blink an eye. I could’ve never practiced law like that.
SI: When did you realize you had an “unreal passion” for coaching?
JC: It was probably the high school job I had, the very first job [at Lansing Catholic Central in Michigan in 1999]. I know for a fact I wasn’t that good of a coach. There's a lot of stuff you learn along the way. I knew I could relate to the players, I could relate to the kids. I always felt I had pretty good instincts for the game, and I just had so much fun doing it. It never, ever felt like a job to me. It still doesn’t. Anytime you feel like that, clearly, the word "passion" is probably hidden in there somewhere. That’s the definition of passion really. It was obviously the least talented level of hockey I ever coached, but it was the most fun. These kids, we had so much fun with them. They weren’t really supposed to win anything. We ended up going farther than anybody thought. [Under Cooper, the Cougars reached their first regional title since 1976.] They were just a fun group of kids that were just playing hockey for fun to represent their school. Maybe one or two played after high school.
SI: What do you remember from that year?
JC: Just how much fun we had. We rented a school bus and drove to Toronto, which is four hours a way, and rented out Maple Leaf Garden so we could skate on it. We had a scrimmage there. We had fun. We had some characters on the team. If you screwed up, we didn’t really punish them. But the next day in practice, the player would, when we had our team stretch, I think he’d have to skate around, take his helmet off and squirt water on top of his head, screaming what he’d never do again. The guys would love it. We just had a good group of guys that we had fun with. At some point, I’ve got to write a book.
SI: Okay, rapid fire. How’s the Lightning staff golf league going this year?
JC: The one thing about this year is because we’ve had such a road-heavy schedule, we’ve barely been able to fit it in. To kick off the year we had a staff Ryder Cup in Naples, so it was Canada vs. the U.S. That was a ton of fun. But we haven’t had a ton of days to play. But because we’re home-heavy in the second half, the league will be going in full stride. That’s a once- or twice-a-month break that everybody on the staff looks forward to. It’s nine holes, we do it 12 times a year, and then we have a championship round that’s 18 holes at the end of the year. Everybody dresses up for it, and then the trophy’s handed out. [Former assistant] Steve Thomas won it, and he’s in St. Louis now. He’s the defending champ. We picked up Todd Richards. Todd’s come in and he’s probably the No. 1. We didn’t lose anything in golf when [Thomas] left.
SI: Do you still quote Wedding Crashers to your team?
JC: I do. Rule 76: No excuses, play like a champion. Rule 113: Don’t look for opportunities, make them. Those are the two that stick with our team.
SI: How’d that start?
JC: First of all, I love the movie. Two, the "No excuses, play like a champion," I think that’s life. That’s not just hockey. That’s whatever you do in life. That’s something I totally abide by. I did it so guys could relate to it. It was a popular thing, then it just stuck. Then I met Vince Vaughn, so that made it all the more apropos that I used it. It’s just life lessons that are channeled through a funny movie.
SI: What was on your family Christmas card this year?
JC: Due to the season, it had a strong political theme. Let’s leave it at that.