Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has a habit of asking himself questions during interviews and then answering those questions. So, to honor the beloved coach I ask: “Do I think Cooper is a master motivator? Yes, I do.”
Since Cooper took over as the head coach in 2013, the Lightning have won 18 playoff series. They have also gone to four Stanley Cup Finals, winning two consecutive titles. Let me ask another question. How does the 55-year-old former attorney from Prince George, BC, Canada keep his team motivated?
Cooper Reminds Team That When They’re Down, It’s a Best-of-Seven Series
Cooper is constantly motivating his players and reminding their playoff opponents that just because they lose a game or two, doesn’t mean the series is over — not until one of them wins four games. This was especially important last postseason when the Lightning often found themselves in an early hole.
Cooper feeds this inspirational mantra to his team. Does it help? You bet. When they lost 5-0 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first game of the First Round of last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning bounced back to force a Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena and won. During that contest, they faced the league’s leading goal scorer. Then they found themselves in a two-game deficit against the New York Rangers and their Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in the Eastern Conference Final and won four straight games to advance to the Cup Final.
After losing a hard-fought battle in six games to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final, Cooper and his assistant coaches may not need to motivate the team going into this season. The lingering taste of defeat has simmered for months and the players surely don’t enjoy it and neither do the coaches. But the Lightning have experienced enough highs and lows to understand that they’re not going to win every game or every series.
In an interview after the 5-0 loss in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final last June, Cooper asked, “Does it suck losing a game like that? For sure. We’re not used to it. It doesn’t really happen to us. But is it going to happen at times? Yeah, it is.”
A Great Strategist and Motivator
Cooper’s skills at motivating his team and keeping them focused were put to the ultimate test in 2019 when they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round of the playoffs after securing the most points of any NHL team that season. After their historic loss, many players weren’t sure if they would be back with the team the following year. But instead of breaking up the band, Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois kept the core team together and retained their head coach too. Once he was given a green light on his future with the Lightning, Cooper did the rest. He recognized that the players needed to feel defeat before they could experience success. He wanted the drubbing by Columbus to drive the team’s success going forward. The players responded, making the postseason the following season and even defeating the Blue Jackets in a five-overtime contest to keep their title run alive.
Since then, the Lightning have been Cup contenders and they will be again this season. But not many are predicting that the team, which is ranked the fourth oldest in the NHL, will actually win the Stanley Cup next season. So, with expectations a little lower, the coaches need to find a way to motivate everyone during the regular season and into the playoffs. Nothing motivates a team like winning games and no one is better at making timely adjustments that can tilt the game in his team’s favor than Cooper.
“They’ve consistently found something mid-series that’s put a crack in the opposing defence, freeing up Tampa’s offence, which suddenly breaks a game wide open for a clean win amidst the stress of all the other games,” stated Brian Engblom, a Lightning analyst for Bally Sports and a former NHL player.
In addition, Cooper’s emphasis on defense has inspired his entire team to block shots and throw hits when it counts the most – during the playoffs. When you have your captain, Steven Stamkos, blocking shot after shot in the postseason, that is a testament to their drive to win. It also shows that the coach taught his players the importance of defending in front of their goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Cooper loves his players. He feels their pain, indignation and injustices as much as they do. He also mourns the losses. But as their coach, he cannot dwell on the negatives. He must motivate and keep the team focused at practice, on home ice, on the road and during the postseason. Although as a coach, there is only so much he can do. After years of playoff success, when they drop the puck, it’s really out of his hands. It is up to the Lightning players to execute and that is one of the secrets to his motivation and why he excels as a coach. He trusts his team.
When the Lightning lost the Stanley Cup last season, it proved they could be beaten – their Cinderella season ended with the Avalanche parading around Amalie Arena with the cherished trophy. Cooper showed that he was human too. When they lost Game 4 of the series on a non-call for too many men on the ice, he was livid and so distraught that he could not even complete his postgame news conference.
However, as the role model for the team, he rebounded as only he could. When interviewed the following day (June 23, 2022), Luke Fox of Sportsnet quoted Cooper as saying: “Did they get the better of us in overtime? There’s no question they did. What’s great about today is that it’s not yesterday.” Is there any better secret to motivating a team than to turn the page on a tough loss? I don’t think so.