TAMPA, Fla. – It was just over two years ago, not much time in the grand scheme of life but eons ago on the hockey clock.
The Sabres were here, five weeks removed from the firing of Lindy Ruff and with a roster that still featured familiar veteran names like Miller, Vanek, Pominville, Ehrhoff, Leopold and Ott. It was a routine late-March game against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that was 14th in the Eastern Conference. But it suddenly became a big story because the Bolts had fired coach Guy Boucher three days earlier, less than two seasons after he had taken them to the Eastern Conference final.
And the word around the rink at the Sabres’ practice the day before was that Ruff was going to become Tampa Bay’s coach and maybe meet his old team. After all, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman had a relationship with Ruff from their days with Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. And the Lightning were surely going to go with a veteran coach to try to quickly reverse their fortunes because tapping another minor-league mentor, like Boucher was, had a limited run of success.
But Yzerman threw a changeup for his first hire. He decided to promote his AHL coach who again carried a big prospect tag, an unknown former Michigan lawyer named Jon Cooper. Seems like it worked out fine.
Yzerman and Cooper quickly turned the Lightning into a 100-point team and a Stanley Cup finalist, using a combination of top draft picks and shrewd trades that has to have Sabres fans envious and hopeful the strategy can be replicated in Buffalo. The Lightning entered Game Five of the final against Chicago, which did not end in time for this edition, two wins away from the title.
That morning in 2013, Yzerman was questioned hard by reporters about Ruff. Yzerman insisted he was going with Cooper all along.
“I had made my mind up when I decided to make the coaching change about what I was doing and that we were going with Jon Cooper,” Yzerman said that day. “There are other options that could have been the safer thing to do. Had Jon not been in our organization and me not knowing him really well, I may have gone a different way. This is my decision. I have no doubt this is the way I want to go.
“The biggest reason why is he’s been in our organization for three years and he’s done a great job. I’ve watched him and thought, ‘This guy is going to be an outstanding coach. We’re going to make a change. I’ve got him right here.’ ”
A pretty prescient thought.
Cooper is a former Hofstra University lacrosse player who had his eyes on being a sports agent. But things changed when he started coaching junior hockey in Lansing, Mich. in 1999. He moved to places like Texarkana, Texas, and Green Bay before becoming the first coach to go directly from the United States Hockey League to the AHL and a Calder Cup championship team in Norfolk, Va. When Tampa Bay moved its affiliate to Syracuse, Cooper went there before getting the ultimate call to the NHL.
Texarkana lost in the 2005 North American Hockey League playoffs to the Texas Tornado, who had a strapping 18-year-old goaltender named Ben Bishop. The franchise moved to St. Louis in 2006 and Cooper won league titles there in 2007 and 2008. It started a trend of Cooper winning championships in his second full season.
It happened in the USHL in Green Bay. Again in the AHL in Norfolk. And, lo and behold, this is Cooper’s second full year in the NHL.
A big moment came when Steven Stamkos broke his leg in a game in Boston in November, 2013. Stamkos couldn’t get back in time for the Sochi Olympics but the team improved greatly without its captain and best player.
The Lightning went from a pro-rated 69 points in the 2013 lockout season to 101 in 2013-14 but Bishop was injured and they were swept in the playoffs by Montreal.
“We were feeling really, really good about ourselves in the middle of April and six days later, it wasn’t so good,” Cooper recalled. “We went into the summer with the sting of what had happened. I think it fueled us this year.”
The Lightning have overcame adversity in each series. They beat Detroit in seven games after being down, 3-2. They beat Montreal in six after the Canadiens went from a 3-0 deficit to 3-2. And they beat the Rangers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final in Madison Square Garden after enduring a 7-3 drubbing on home ice in Game Six with a chance to close out the series.
“The Detroit series, when we were staring that 3-2 deficit in the face, it was, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to happen to us again?” Cooper said, referring to last year’s loss. “You could just see the attitude of the players. It was, ‘Coach, don’t worry about this one, we’ve got this.’ ”
Cooper, 47, grew up in British Columbia as an Oakland Raiders fan. The reason was simple. They won.
“When you’re out there, the limited TV stations we got, you got Seahawk games or Raiders games,” Cooper said during this series. “Ken Stabler was my boy, loved him. Fred Biletnikoff. I could go down the list. Lester Hayes. But they were winners. I liked watching teams that won.”
Cooper likes coaching teams that win. Players respond to him because his door is always open and they feel like they have ownership in the team. One of Cooper’s new-found friends, of all people, is Charles Barkley. Even though he never captured an NBA title, “the Round Mound of Rebound” won a lot of games in his career and has thrived for years as a broadcaster.
They met last year in Los Angeles and Barkley has given Cooper shout-outs on TNT during this season’s NBA playoffs.
All through the playoffs, Cooper and his coaching staff have had dinners in places like Detroit, Montreal and New York. Barkley suggested they eat at Chicago Cut, a top city steakhouse, during the final.
When they arrived for their reservation last Sunday, a party of 20 when you count wives and auxiliary staffers, the restaurant told Cooper & Co. that Barkley had called ahead and was picking up the tab.
After winning Game Three on Monday, the Tampa party returned to the restaurant on Tuesday. In the restaurant was another friend of Cooper, Blackhawks fan and actor Vince Vaughn. In the wake of Barkley, Cooper announced he wanted to pick up the tab for Vaughn’s party of 12. Except Vaughn had other ideas.
“Vince looks at me and says, ‘I know that guy just called you over to pick up my check. That’s not how we roll in Chicago,’ ” Chicago Cut managing partner David Flom told the Chicago Tribune. “He goes, ‘This is Chicago, my town. This is how we treat people. I got his check.’ How can you argue with Vince Vaughn? I said, ‘OK, no problem.’ I go walk away and he stands up and says, ‘I got his check. This is Chicago.’
“So we go over to Cooper and he goes, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Twice with 20 people and I haven’t paid once.’ ”
Cooper wasn’t aware all this had gotten pretty public when he was asked about it Wednesday in Chicago.
“They’re all just random things,” he said with a sheepish laugh. “We’ve added a little tradition. We’ve gone off as a staff. Other people in the restaurant that we see, those are just random meetings. We’ve gone out as a staff together in every single series. Maybe there’s just a little more notoriety because we’re in the final.”
These days, it’s a long way from Texarkana, or even Syracuse, for Cooper.