Cooper follows winding, winning road to NHL

Friday, 03.29.2013 / 4:02 PM
Tal Pinchevsky

For a man whose job was to render potentially life-altering rulings every day, it was a pretty easy decision for Judge Thomas Brennan, Jr.

A circuit judge in Lansing, Mich., Brennan's son was playing hockey at Lansing Catholic Central High School when the varsity coach resigned. In his search to find a replacement, Brennan eyed a teammate on his local rec league team, the Legal Eagles. He was a young lawyer named Jon Cooper who had played in prep school, a little in college and had recently earned his law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, a college founded by Brennan's father.

At the time, there was no way for Brennan to know he was kick-starting the career of a future NHL coach. Cooper will be behind the Tampa Bay Lightning bench Friday night for the first time when they host the New Jersey Devils.

"We heard about this phenom over at Cooley Law School who was also a pretty good hockey player. We recruited him and got him to start playing with the Legal Eagles," Brennan said. "My son was the starting goalie for the varsity team and they lost their coach. So I went to 'Coop' and I asked, 'Hey, would you like to coach the Lansing Catholic team?'"

When Brennan approached Cooper, the young lawyer was opening his own practice and making about $1,000 a month representing indigent defendants -- clients unable to afford representation but constitutionally entitled to legal counsel -- in circuit court. Cooper took the coaching job, which paid very little, alongside co-coach and former NHL player Pat Murray.

After more than a decade without a team, Lansing Catholic had restarted its hockey program three years earlier. With just three seniors on his roster, Cooper reinvigorated the team, winning the school's first regional title in 25 years and being named 1999 High School Coach of the Year by the Lansing State Journal.

"Those guys were great. A breath of fresh air -- definitely quality coaches. They didn't just tell you what to do. They showed you how to do it," said Pat Frank, a senior defenseman on that Lansing Catholic team. "It's funny to think of that being his first foray into the coaching world, and to see where he has ended up. He was a fun guy to play for. Everyone liked him."

Shocked by Lansing Catholic's run to the quarterfinals at the 1999 Michigan state tournament, Brennan and some other boosters collected about $2,000 in donations to try and entice Cooper into staying. By then, he was already gone.

"That one year, the way he coached those kids, Jon got the bug," Brennan said. "I don't really think he was interested in coaching before I approached him. He was going to be a lawyer. He was working his butt off trying to get his law practice going. It was only a matter of time before he was going to morph from being a lawyer to being a coach."

Following his lone season at Lansing Catholic, Cooper took a job as an assistant coach with the Capital Centre Pride, a local team in the North American Hockey League, before getting involved as an associate coach with the Honeybaked Hockey Club, a local program whose graduates include NHLers Jim Slater, Drew Miller and David Booth.

By 2002, Cooper got a break of sorts when he took a job coaching the Metro Jets, a Tier III Junior team playing in what was then known as the Central States Hockey League. As he did with Lansing Catholic, Cooper enjoyed instant results, winning a championship in his first year behind the Jets' bench. And as he did with Lansing Catholic, he moved up to a new job quickly.

Cooper's winning hadn't gone unnoticed. Longtime NHL player Kelly Chase, whose wife attended Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan alongside Cooper, approached him about taking over a North American Hockey League expansion team he owned. At the time, Cooper was still running his own law practice and the job was in Texarkana, Texas.

After a spirited pitch from Chase, Cooper boarded up his practice and moved to a hockey wasteland lying along the Texas-Arkansas state line.

Cooper's previous coaching jobs hadn't exactly been posh, but life with the Texarkana Bandits was a change. Local officials had promised Chase and the Bandits a new facility, but in the meantime the club was forced to drive two hours each way most days just to get ice time. But as he had everywhere else, Cooper made it work.

"We literally played in a barn in Texarkana. We had to build our own ice and put the rink together and paint the ice and help put the boards up. We didn't have the luxury like other teams in the North American Hockey League to practice every day," said Patrick Maroon, an Anaheim Ducks prospect who played for Cooper with the Bandits. "Coop found a way to bring us together and we found ways to win. The times were tough in Texarkana, but we made the best of it. He's the one that kept us together."

A tough situation got easier in 2006 when, after three years in Texarkana and still without a new facility, Chase moved the team to St. Louis. In an area that loved hockey, Cooper and the Bandits found their footing, winning the Robertson Cup as Tier II Junior champions in 2007 and 2008.

As if on cue, Cooper found a new job, making the leap to the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the U.S., to coach the Green Bay Gamblers in 2008. A year later, Cooper and the Gamblers were league champions, making the former lawyer the only coach to ever win titles at all three levels of American junior hockey. Naturally, he got a new job that summer.

Cooper had his work cut out for him when he took over the American Hockey League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010. The Norfolk Admirals had missed the playoffs three straight seasons and had not won a playoff series in eight years, but Cooper led the club to the playoffs in his first season.

"We believed that first year," said Dustin Tokarski, the Admirals starting goaltender for Cooper. "The organization there hadn't seen the playoffs for a while, so he [Cooper] just made it clear that this was something that was going to be a tradition here, just winning. And we followed it up with a great year the year after."

In his second season in Norfolk, Cooper and the Admirals found themselves in the middle of the AHL standings halfway through the 2011-12 season. It was after an underwhelming performance on Super Bowl Sunday that Cooper sat his team down and spoke frankly. It proved to be a turning point for the club, which closed out the season with 28 straight wins, a North American professional hockey record, before going 15-3 in the playoffs to capture the Calder Cup.

With four league titles in three different leagues over four years, Cooper must have earned the attention of Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, who named Cooper the Lightning's new coach on Monday.

There should be plenty of familiar faces for Cooper with the Lightning, who this season have dressed eight different players that won the Calder Cup last summer.

"[Cooper] doesn't have many weaknesses; he's got a lot of strengths. He sees the game so well," said Cory Conacher, who led the AHL in goals last season. "He didn't play hockey when he was a younger kid, he's a lawyer. He works so hard and he watches a lot of film. He does little things that other coaches don't do."

For instance, like going from coaching high school hockey to the NHL in 14 years.

Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer

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