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THE MOJ: Fire still burns for B.C.’s Cooper, the dean of NHL coaches

2-time Stanley Cup champion from Prince George has been a champion at every level

I’ve always been amazed by Jon Cooper’s journey to the NHL.

Never mind the 3,256 miles from Cooper’s home town of Prince George, B.C. to Tampa Bay, Florida, his route to being behind the bench for the Lightning has been a rather unorthodox one.

While most coaches have resumes that includes playing time in the NHL, Cooper does not.

He played hockey and lacrosse growing up and eventually wound up attending the prestigious Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Saskatchewan where he realized his dream of playing in the NHL wasn’t going to happen.

Cooper shifted his focus to lacrosse and wound up attending Hofstra University where he was a letterman for four years while earning a business degree. From there, it was off to Lansing, Michigan where he graduated from Cooley Law School and practiced law for five years.

Michigan is also where he became a coach for the first time with Lansing Catholic School. From there, Cooper had stints as a head coach in various developmental leagues in the U.S. before the Lightning hired him to run their AHL team in Norfolk.

The common denominator among all those stops?

Cooper won championships at every level, which was a harbinger of things to come in the NHL.

According to J.T. Miller of the Canucks, it’s the reason why Cooper has overcome the stigma of not ever having played in the league.

“He’s been a winner on all levels. It’s just in his nature to win. He has that swagger within him and I think he’d be the first to tell you. He also carries a confidence with the system that they’re trying to preach,” said Miller, who played for Cooper in Tampa during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

So when the Lightning came to Vancouver sporting a 13-11-5 record prior to Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Canucks, I was wondering how Cooper was handling the situation with his team being on the playoff bubble.

“We’ve worked our tails off. We’re just a different team. We have so many new faces now and guys in different roles. There’s been a lot of turnover but we’ve got a group that works their tail off. If we keep working, we’ll be okay,” Cooper explained after the game.

Now the longest tenured coach in the league, Cooper is looking to get his hockey club back to a championship level.

One of the primary reasons for the Lighting’s success over the years has been their ability to lock-down opponents when required but that’s not been the case this year as they have now given up 106 goals which is tied for second worst in the league.

Not having all-world netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy available for the first 20 games of the season as he recovered from off-season back surgery didn’t help matters but the Russian’s return does have the team trending in the right direction as his 2.74 GAA would indicate.

“There’s no question we have to get better defensively. You can’t win in this league unless you do that. It’s been tough for us. I think at the beginning, we were just been giving up way too many odd man rushes and shooting ourselves in the foot. It feels like in the first third of the year here we didn’t give up a chance forever, and when we did, it wound up in our net but we’re growing as a team. There are a lot of good things to pull from, but for sure the goals against, that’s the one we’ve got to clean up,” said Cooper.

Despite their troubles defensively, Cooper feels optimistic about a group that’s led by the likes of Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point among others.

“At some point, it will start clicking for us. There are times like this during a season. This year, it’s happened during the beginning. Other years it’s happened during the middle of the year. The big thing for us is that we can’t fall too far behind in the standings because it is hard to comeback,” said Cooper.

Now in his 12th year behind the bench for the Lightning with two Stanley Cups to his credit and two other Cup Final appearances, you’d think burnout might be an issue with Cooper but that’s not the case.

He actually chuckled when asked about it.

“I just love the competition. There’s nothing like game day…being behind the bench…trying to outdo the other team. That fire still burns. Even though we’ve been to a few finals and won a couple of Cups, I feel like we haven’t won anything. So there’s still a lot fire there,” said Cooper.


Fun Factoid – Cooper played two games for the Western Lacrosse Association’s Richmond Outlaws in 1988, recording a goal and an assist.

Brock Boeser’s three goals in the Canucks win propelled him into a tie with Toronto’s Auston Matthews for the league led in goals with 21. It was the fifth hat trick of Boeser’s career. Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet was quick to point out in his post-game comments that it’s Boeser’s defensive play that has impressed him the most. “He’s a smart guy and knows the spots to go at but he’s sharpened up his defensive game. He still wants to get better at his defensive game but it’s night-and-day from last year,” said Tocchet.

Next up for the Canucks is a visit from the Florida Panthers Thursday night at Rogers Arena. The organization will induct Roberto Luongo into its Ring of Honour prior to the game.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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