It’s hard to imagine any other coach behind the bench for the Tampa Bay Lightning than Jon Cooper. Under his leadership, the team has become one of the most successful franchises in league history and a model organization. Saturday, March 25, 2023, he will celebrate his 10th anniversary.
Before he took over as coach in 2013, the Lightning had not secured a playoff spot in two seasons. Cooper brought a winning attitude and stability to the Lightning. He is the NHL’s longest-tenured current head coach, ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mike Sullivan.
While congratulating this marvelous milestone, let’s examine Cooper’s accomplishments and what he means to the team.
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Cooper’s Circuitous Journey to the NHL
Born in Prince George, British Columbia, and growing up in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, Cooper played high school hockey before heading to Hofstra University to study business. Eventually, he moved from Wall Street to law school in Michigan where the idea of coaching germinated when he joined a recreational hockey league consisting of the Lansing-area law community. From there, the future NHL coach was on his way.
Cooper began coaching a small Catholic high school hockey team while practicing law. He enjoyed his first taste of success when the team won its first regional hockey championship in 25 seasons. From there he began coaching full-time for the North American Hockey League (NAHL), where he won the league title with the St. Louis Bandits. After moving to the United States Hockey League (USHL) to coach the Green Bay Gamblers, the team won the Clark Cup for the league’s championship.
His success caught the attention of the Lightning who hired him as the head coach of their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Norfolk Admirals. Within two seasons, the team won the AHL’s Calder Cup championship.
The Lightning’s New Head Coach
Guy Boucher was the seventh head coach since the Lightning was founded in 1992. He held a total record of 97-79-20 during his three seasons in Tampa. Then on March 25, the Lightning announced that Cooper would take over as the head coach and he made his NHL debut with a shootout win over the New Jersey Devils. The next season, the team made tremendous strides, amassing 101 points. In 2015, they were playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks. Although they lost in six games, it was clear that their coach had the team believing in themselves.
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In 788 NHL games (all with the Lightning), Cooper has a .647 winning percentage during the regular season. In addition, he has coached 139 playoff games and won 84 of those contests – and two consecutive Stanley Cups.
Longest-Tenured NHL Head Coach
Longevity in the NHL is rare in the coaching community. Firing coaches is the one drastic move teams can make in the dressing room without any ramifications to a club’s salary cap. For the Lightning, a decision made in 2019 changed the trajectory of the franchise.
After the Lightning posted 128 points and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2018-19, they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the sixth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a demoralizing defeat. After the loss, general manager (GM) Julien BriseBois could have fired Cooper and searched for another head coach. Instead, he retained his head coach. Cooper rewarded that confidence in him by advancing to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and winning two championships. He used the stinging Blue Jackets’ loss to motivate his team.
Perhaps his training as a lawyer has made him a master motivator, as Cooper can always convey the appropriate message at the right time. When the Lightning were down 2-0 to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, he reminded his team, and their opponent, that just because they’re down, it’s still a best-of-seven series, and they haven’t lost until one of them wins four games.
He made headlines recently when he benched captain Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov against the Buffalo Sabres. The three star forwards were a combined minus-6 in the first two periods and sat out the third for not hustling on defense during a four-game winless streak.
The Perfect Fit for the Lightning
Beyond the Lightning organization, Cooper is respected by his peers and other players. He emits a positive attitude and knows how to communicate and connect with his players, other coaches and the fans.
The players trust Cooper because he has been successful at every level of coaching. With him behind the bench and the talent on the ice, the Lightning continue to be among the league’s best and most feared teams, especially during the postseason.
So, what do you give a coach who seems to have everything? For a 10th anniversary, a gift of tin or aluminum, which signifies durability and longevity, is tradition. I can’t think of a better gift than a tin cup – not just any cup, but THE Stanley Cup.
Happy anniversary, coach Cooper.