“C’mon, let’s go for a walk.”
It’s the Friday morning of all-star weekend, and Jon Cooper is on a quest for one of those breakfasts that doesn’t cost much money, fills you to the gills and plays havoc with your cholesterol. Looking down at his phone to get his bearings, he receives a brush from a university kid on a power scooter. “They just ordered 1,800 of them in Tampa,” he says. “They’re a nuisance.”
After changing course a couple of times, he settles on a spot called Peanuts Deluxe Cafe on San Fernando Street across from San Jose State University. It’s a place that really isn’t so deluxe but has a ton of ambience and character, where people are drinking beer at noon on a Tuesday. It reminds him of the dive bars he likes to frequent, places like Shale’s Cafe in Pittsburgh and Four Green Fields back home in Tampa. If he’s looking for a good pub, he’ll go to Yelp and punch in “dive bar” for a recommendation. “It’s where people are the most real,” he says. “They’re not afraid of what they do and who they are.”
Spend any time around Cooper, and it quickly becomes clear he could just as easily be talking about himself. Comfortable in his own skin? You bet. Rarely gets flustered, at least publicly. Enjoys a good beer, likes kibitzing and, as we’ve learned during his NHL tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning – which, by the way, is currently the longest with the same team – he’s a very good coach. He’s euphemistically been referred to as the most interesting man in the world, which is a little cliche, but it kind of fits, amirite? He says it’s because he didn’t play left wing for the Chicago Blackhawks for 10 years but, last time we checked, 14 of the 31 men currently occupying an NHL bench never skated so much as one shift in the best league in the world. So it has to be more than that. Cooper is a guy who went to law school, passed the bar exam in Michigan by the skin of his teeth and made his entry into the hockey world by defending players from Michigan State who got into trouble. There’s a lot to mine there, particularly with someone as ebullient as Cooper, who just happens to be in the mood to share his story.
Cooper goes with No. 58 on the menu, a massive concoction of eggs, home fries and toast. You get down to the guts of the conversation and, no lie, the following thing happens: just as you ask Cooper about his moral compass, what makes him tick, what guides him in life, an elderly woman tries to get through the door of the Peanuts Deluxe Cafe with a walker. The NHL coach immediately jumps from his spot, holds the door open and guides the woman all the way to her seat. “Your recorder will never pick that up,” Cooper says. “But that’s how I try and live my life.”
For the past 51-and-a-half years, Cooper has led something of a charmed existence. The son of the owner and operator of R.J. Cooper Construction Ltd., in Prince George, B.C., Cooper played varsity lacrosse, went to law school, was a public defender and later a criminal attorney, then coached his way up from a team that literally played in a barn to a team that carries the heaviest Stanley Cup expectations this season. He has learned a few things about himself and about life along the way. So, over breakfast at a dive diner in San Jose, he shares some of the pearls of wisdom he has picked up.
Without further ado, here is The World According to Coop:
1. Aretha Franklin was right, it’s all about the ‘R’ word
Much of this comes from knowing what you don’t know, and Cooper, who came into the NHL as a hotshot coach who thought he could conquer this league, realizes how little he knows the more he coaches. Respect is key – to fellow coaches, to the game, to officials and, most of all, to the players who go out and lay it on the line every game. “You have to respect your players, you have to respect their talent, and you have to respect the path that they took to get there,” Cooper says. “You have to work to earn their respect.”
Mission accomplished in Tampa so far. As Lightning star Steven Stamkos points out, it’s easy to be as laid-back as Cooper is when things have gone as well as they have for as long as they have. But regardless of how things are going, the Lightning go to the rink knowing what to expect from their leader. Some coaches thrive on creating chaos and by playing mind games, but Cooper, partly because he didn’t play left wing for the Chicago Blackhawks for 10 years, knows you can’t be something you’re not. So he’d prefer to do most of his coaching behind closed doors in 1-on-1 meetings with players. “He’s not a yeller, he’s not a screamer,” Stamkos says. “He gains respect in different ways in terms of having those relationships with players where they want to go out and play for him.”
You have to respect your players, you have to respect their talent, and you have to respect the path that they took to get there. You have to work to earn their respect
– Jon Cooper
2. Be true to yourself
This one, like many of Cooper’s other life lessons, comes out of a pretty good yarn. In his second year in the AHL, he coaches the Norfolk Admirals to the Calder Cup championship in a four-game sweep. The only issue was that the Admirals weren’t scheduled to fly home until after Game 5, so they were stranded in Toronto for a couple of days. Cooper wakes up with the Calder Cup the next day and gets a call from Lightning GM Steve Yzerman telling him that Edmonton Oilers vice-president of hockey operations Craig MacTavish wants to interview him for the Oilers’ vacant coaching job. He meets MacTavish at 4 p.m., and the first thing MacTavish does is order two beers. Drinking beer is the last thing Cooper wants to do at this point. Part of the way through their conversation, MacTavish says to Cooper: “The NHL can be a toxic, it can be a toxic environment. Just meeting you, you don’t have that in you. Don’t ever lose that.” And Cooper has heeded those words. “Every time things are going badly,” he says, “I think in my head, ‘Craig MacTavish, Craig MacTavish, Craig MacTavish.’ ”
3. Appreciate and embrace adversity
Cooper did not get the job in Edmonton. Instead it went to Ralph Krueger, who lasted one season. Cooper also interviewed with Washington that summer and lost out to Adam Oates, who lasted two. Cooper went back to the AHL, where he coached for most of the next season before taking over behind the Lightning bench with 17 games remaining in 2012-13. “If I take Washington or Edmonton, I don’t think I’m standing here right now,” he says. “I could sit here and say, ‘Jon, you’re a good coach. You would have saved it.’ No way. I wouldn’t have been able to.”
More than 30 years before that, Cooper leaves Prince George to play hockey at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., thinking he’ll be playing on the AAA midget team because he’s been a star athlete all his life. But it’s a powerhouse squad that features a 16-year-old Wendel Clark, and Cooper gets cut for the first time in his young hockey career. He seriously contemplates going home but decides to stay. He never makes the top team at Notre Dame in any of his four years there, but he wins the leadership award in his final year and captains the Juvenile ‘C’ team as a senior. Being 15 and getting cut, then living in a dorm where there was one payphone for 100 kids and the showers started to run cold by 6 a.m. gave him some valuable life lessons. “I would say I went in there a boy and left a man,” Cooper says. “I had to learn to survive, and not in a bad way.”
4. Bet on yourself
Cooper was working in East Lansing, Mich., after five years as a public defender when he got a call from former NHLer Jason Woolley, whose wife had attended law school with Cooper. Turns out a kid on the team had been busted for drunk driving and needed legal representation. Cooper took the case and managed to get it dropped, after which Woolley left a stack of Cooper’s business cards on the table in the dressing room and told the players to contact Cooper if they ever got into trouble. “They all got into trouble,” Cooper says. “They all came to me. It was all harmless. Like, you know, a drunken bar fight or a disorderly or whatever.”
That provided Cooper a conduit into the hockey world, and he started coaching. And he became good at it, guiding a Detroit-area team to a national Jr. B championship and taking over the AAA Detroit Honeybaked midget team. That was when another ex-NHLer, Kelly Chase, convinced him to drop his entire legal career and take over some expansion team called the Texarkana Bandits in something called the North American Hockey League. The team played in a rodeo barn and had to travel to Arkansas to practise. Cooper did everything from selling sponsorships to painting the lines on the ice. The Texarkana Bandits became the St. Louis Bandits, and Cooper won a championship there, too, before moving on to the USHL, where he won another championship with the Green Bay Gamblers. “I’ve always been a bet-on-myself guy,” Cooper says. “I was never afraid to say, ‘F— it, I’m giving up my law practice, and I’m going to start a hockey team. I’m going to go down there and put the boards up and spray the rink and paint the lines and sell tickets and drive a team 120 miles one way to practice. That’s what I’m going to do. I love it, and I know I can do it.’ ”
I’ve always been a bet-on-myself guy
– Jon Cooper
5. Own your mistakes
It’s the day after Game 1 of the 2015 Stanley Cup final, and Cooper, who is clearly not in a great mood after losing the night before, is doing his daily media briefing. Stamkos received 14:37 of even-strength ice time in Game 1, which is seventh among Lightning forwards. When asked why, Cooper becomes testy, answers the question and leaves. “That was where you were the a–hole who asked that question, right?” Cooper says. “But it was a learning experience for me. You have to be prepared for those kinds of questions. I didn’t even look at the sheet, and I just walked into the press conference all pissed off. After that happened I said, ‘Don’t ever f—ing go into one of those things unprepared like that again.’ ”
6. Be prepared to call an audible when necessary
One Saturday, while coaching the Detroit Honeybaked midget team, Cooper arranged for his squad to go to see a Michigan State game. During the day, he met some old friends at a bar near campus called Crunchy’s. Among those invited was Nate Ewell, the sports information director at Michigan State at the time who would later go on to become deputy executive director of College Hockey Inc. Another was a former law colleague of Cooper’s, who brought one of the students who was interning at her law firm. Cooper struck up a conversation with the former Jessica Novak, and all his friends, not to mention his team, were forgotten. “I took her to the Michigan State game with about eight minutes left, and all the players were like, ‘Where the hell have you been and who’s the girl you’re with?’ ” Cooper says. “They knew I didn’t have a girlfriend. When she was still in law school, I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and she said, ‘I’m coming with you,’ and she took a leap of faith.”
Cooper and his wife have twin girls and a boy who plays on the same mite team with Dan Girardi’s son and Vinny Lecavalier’s son. Lecavalier is the coach.
7. And finally, be honest, even if it costs you
Believe it or not, Cooper doesn’t have a contract to coach the Lightning beyond this season. His salary has never been disclosed, but he does know Mike Babcock makes $6.25 million a year on a long-term deal, Joel Quenneville was making $6 million, and Barry Trotz signed with the Islanders for about $4 million a season. Claude Julien is pulling down $5 million per in Montreal. They all have higher salaries than Cooper, but they all also have something he wants desperately more – a Stanley Cup. “I always tell (Quenneville), ‘Screw you, did you have to win the third one?’ ” Cooper says. “ ‘It could’ve been two for you and one for me, but oh no, you’re a hog and you had to have three.’ We laugh about that.”
Barring an extension before the playoffs, Cooper will get paid if he wins the Cup. If the Lightning exit the playoffs early, he might not have a job at all. And in reality, the odds are against the Lightning winning because the odds are against everybody. It takes a special team and a unique combination of circumstances for a team to win four playoff rounds. “I make more money now than I ever thought I’d make in my life,” he says. “If I get an extension, wherever that path leads me, I hope it takes me to a Stanley Cup. If they want me to stay, which I want to do, we’ll make that happen.”
When it’s pointed out to him that he’s basically announced to the world he’s willing to take a hometown discount to stay in Tampa, Cooper doesn’t blink. He knows it’s the place where he has the best chance of living out his dream. “One hundred percent,” he says. “That’s why I don’t want to leave.”
Not the greatest negotiating tactic, he’s told.
“I don’t care,” Cooper replies.