The Road Less Traveled: Jon Cooper's Rise Up NHL Coaching Ranks

Jon Cooper’s Path To The NHL Part Of An Unconventional Journey

 

Jon Cooper's coaching success has led to many opportunities, including an engagement at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.Jon Cooper's coaching success has led to many opportunities, including an engagement at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Jon Cooper’s rise up the NHL coaching ranks has been nothing if not unconventional.

Hockey wasn’t his best sport growing up — that was lacrosse, which he played collegiately at Hofstra University.

And he didn’t get his start in coaching until later in life, well after his playing days were over. He first worked on Wall Street, then went to law school and became a defense attorney.

When he eventually did take his place behind the bench, it wasn’t with a pro or even a Junior team. It was with a struggling high school squad.    Even so, this unconventional road would eventually lead Cooper to the pinnacle of the profession when he was named the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 25.

But while he’s made the big time, Cooper doesn’t afford himself the time to reflect back on how far he’s come. There will be plenty of time for that somewhere down the line.

“I don’t look back on my career right now and say, ‘look at the career I’ve had,’ because I don’t think my career is anywhere near over,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot of unfinished business ahead.”

Still, it’s hard not to admire how far he’s come from his days as a high school hockey player growing up in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.

“Ultimately I ended up being a little better of a lacrosse player than I was a hockey player,” said Cooper who was born in British Columbia to an American mother and a Canadian father.

That dual citizenship would eventually lead him to USA Hockey, where he has coached at Player Development Camps and more recently at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“Any time you get to come in and work with the best players of their age group, you get to help evaluate these players. It’s an honor because these are the guys who are going to represent your country,” said Cooper, who also spoke at the 2012 National Hockey Coaches Symposium in Washington, D.C.

 “I feel like it’s my obligation to come help out because of how good USA Hockey has been to me.”

Following college, his path began to stray away from the ice when he took a job with Prudential Securities, the financial services arm of Prudential Financial that would eventually merge with Wachovia in 2003.

However, athletics kept beckoning to him. Cooper wanted to get involved in the sports agency business, so he left his job on Wall Street and enrolled in Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich.

At law school, he got involved with hockey again through the “Legal Eagles,” an adult Rec team in the Lansing area that was made up of members of the law community.

“They’d get wind of when guys with hockey backgrounds come to town,” Cooper said. “I was playing hockey all the time, and it really helped me a lot because when I got out of law school, it got me jobs.”

One of the players he would meet on that team forever altered the course of his career.

Thomas Brennan, Jr., a District Court judge and a member of the Legal Eagles, took an immediate interest in the young hockey-playing lawyer.

“His personality is immediately attractive. You can’t help but be drawn to the guy,” Brennan recalled. “Most of the guys on the team were already practicing lawyers and loved having him around.”

After Cooper graduated and started a law practice in Lansing, Brennan contracted him to do court-appointed work. For $1,000 a month, he worked as a public defender, taking on clients who couldn’t afford legal representation.

 “I feel like it’s my obligation to come help out because of how good USA Hockey has been to me.”

—Jon Cooper

Even though he worked for menial wages, Cooper quickly discovered he had a knack for the job.

“He could negotiate with the prosecutors; they would give away the store to him,” Brennan said. “He’d have been terrific had he stayed in law.”

Around this time, Brennan’s son was a goalie at Lansing Catholic Central High School. After a dismal season, they had just fired their coach and Cooper was asked to take a crack at it.

A berth in the state quarterfinals led to a return engagement for Cooper the following season.

That opportunity was a springboard to other coaching gigs, starting at Triple-A before moving on to the Junior ranks. He won league titles in the NAHL with the St. Louis Bandits, and the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers.

Part of his success has been due to how well he communicates with his team, a skill he was able to hone during his law career.

“I found there is a definite common area [between] hockey [and law],” he said. “I got comfortable speaking to groups. You’re sitting there talking to 20 players in the locker room and you’re trying to convince them how to play, what you want done. It’s no different than convincing a jury.”

That success caught the eye of the  Lightning, who hired him to coach their AHL club in Norfolk for the 2010 season.

After a decent first season, Cooper guided the team to a Calder Cup title in the 2011-12 season that included the team going on a 28-game win streak.

His fast rise made him one of the hottest coaching prospects in the league. So hot that when the Lightning fired Guy Boucher in March, general manager Steve Yzerman passed on more experienced coaches to bring in Cooper.

“I have no doubt this is the way I wanted to go,” Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s been in our organization three years and has done a great job.”

Cooper’s story is far from over and, given his past successes, there’s no reason to think his fairy tale will be ending anytime soon.

“You couldn’t write fiction any better with the way this thing has developed over the years,” Brennan said.

 

Issue: 
2013-10

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