The American Hockey League (AHL) announced today that former North American Hockey League (NAHL) coach Jon Cooper of the Norfolk Admirals has been named the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2011-12 season, as voted by coaches and members of the media in each of the league’s 30 cities.
In his second season in the professional ranks, Cooper has kept his Admirals at the top of the league for much of the year, finally pulling away from the rest of the pack on the strength of a record 25-game winning streak that remains intact heading into the final week of the season. At 52-18-1-2 (107 points), the Admirals have won their first division title since 2003 and have captured the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the overall points champion for the first time ever.
Norfolk, whose top five scorers this season include three rookies and one second-year pro, leads the AHL in offense (3.58 goals per game) and ranks third in defense (2.40 goals against per game), and under Cooper’s development watch nine Admirals were called up to play a total of 142 games with the parent Tampa Bay Lightning in the National Hockey League this season.
A 44-year-old native of Prince George, B.C., Cooper joined the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in August 2010 as head coach of their top development affiliate in Norfolk following a prolific career in the U.S. junior ranks. Cooper was a head coach in the CSHL (now the 3HL) for the Metro Jets prior to working in the NAHL from 2003-08 for the Texarkana/St. Louis Bandits franchise.
While in St. Louis, Cooper led the Bandits to back-to-back Robertson Cup championships in 2007 and 2008. Cooper was named NAHL Coach of the Year during the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons while compiling a 223-93-17 regular and postseason record in five seasons with the Bandits organization. He won a USHL championship and was that league’s coach of the year with Green Bay in 2010.
Cooper has also spent time behind the bench internationally for Team USA’s U-17 and U-18 teams. A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Cooper played hockey and lacrosse at Hofstra University and later obtained a law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
NAHL.com recently had the chance to sit down and catch up with Cooper to discuss several topics including: being named the AHL’s most outstanding coach, his team’s current 25-game winning streak, his time spent in the NAHL and his desire to coach in the NHL in the future.
NAHL.com: Jon, at every level you have been at the last 10 years, including the NAHL, you have somehow managed to be coach of the year in each of the leagues. What does that personally mean to you to have been recognized like that?
Cooper: It’s the ultimate team award because when your team has success awards will follow. However, it is different in junior than it is in pro. In junior, a head coach really dictates everything… scouting, player personnel, coaches, general management, strategy on the ice, development, etc. I think success in professional hockey is much more of a testament in a management team that believes in you. You don’t have a lot of say with what kind of players you are getting because other people are making those decisions. However, you have to have the ability to work with the players along with the management to share a philosophy that is going to make your team a success on the ice. Everyone in the Tampa Bay and Norfolk organizations has placed a lot of faith and belief in me, which gives everyone involved the confidence that we are doing things right here and heading in the right direction. The other thing is, the award is voted on by your peers, so it’s really rewarding to know that the other guys in your business think enough about what you are doing to honor you with something like the coach of the year award.
NAHL.com: Is it a neat experience to see some of the guys that played for you and against you in the NAHL, now doing the same in the AHL?
Cooper: For sure. The one thing it makes me remember is how young, raw and eager the players are at the junior level. When they get to the professional level they are men and expected to do a job. Physical maturity is one of the drastic changes you notice right away in the professional game. I also remember the guys that worked really, really hard in junior to separate themselves from the pack are now the guys that are playing in leagues like the AHL. I remember guys like Jeff Dimmen, who played three years in the NAHL, spent some time playing for me in St. Louis and is now playing for me in Norfolk. Those type of players didn’t cheat the system while they were playing junior hockey and it is the main reason that players like that are able to make it to the AHL or NHL. It is the once piece of advice I can offer up to guys playing junior right now is don’t take the shortcut and work hard.
NAHL.com: Do you have any philosophies or methods that you used while coaching in the NAHL that still remain in use and are relevant today in the AHL with Norfolk?
Cooper: Yes. I have always tried to surround myself with good people. That is the one steadfast thing in any organization that I have gone to was always to surround myself with people that put me in a position to be successful. It doesn’t guarantee success, but looking back on my time spent at all the levels of hockey, I was surrounded by great people. Whether it was the ownership groups, the management or the staff, I have been very fortunate to work for and be surrounded by unreal people.
NAHL.com: Your current win streak with Norfolk is at 25 games, which is not only an AHL record, but the longest streak for any active professional league in North American hockey history. What has stuck out to you most about the streak and what the Admirals have been able to accomplish during that time?
Cooper: I remember in mid-February we had a team meeting after losing three out of four games during a certain stretch. Then I remember the next stretch of games being six games in the next eight nights, all the while wondering how we were going to hold up and get through it. It turned out that the final game of that six game stretch in which we started the winning streak was our only OT/shootout win during the current winning streak of 25 games. Once we won that game and gutted it out, the guys really had a lot of confidence and momentum. It was that six-game winning streak in eight nights that really started the balling rolling.
NAHL.com: When you go in the lockerroom before your games now, what do you say as a coach to a team that has won 25 games in a row?
Cooper: Well, you don’t have to say much. I think the streak has taken on a life of its own and has become bigger than anything I could have imagined. The one thing it has done is forced our players to understand and appreciate the moment. I think when we get into certain situations when our backs are against the wall and the game is close, our guys have responded each and every time. They know what is at stake, so when I look around the room and see the motivation, I just try and get out of the way. They have a heightened awareness, urgency and passion to make sure they keep winning and keep this thing going. We are getting everyone’s best shot and have the self-inflicted bulls-eye on our chests, but we have a great group of players and they keep finding a way to win.
NAHL.com: Is your ultimate goal to be coaching in the NHL one day?
Cooper: I will tell you, if you would have asked me while I was coaching in the NAHL if I would have gone somewhere else besides St. Louis to coach, I would have said no. The same thing happened in Green Bay… I thought I was going to stay there for a while. However, I am really enjoying being in Norfolk and in the AHL right now. It goes back to what I alluded to earlier about surrounding yourself with the right people. This whole journey has never been about an ‘NHL or bust’ mentality. I am elated to be with the Tampa Bay organization and what we have been able to do with their AHL affiliate in Norfolk. I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made to decide to coach at the pro level and in the AHL. Now that I am in the AHL, there is a lot to do and still a lot of learning to do on my part. If I was fortunate enough where a situation did open up in the NHL, I would look hard at it because this is the path I have chosen and when I am in that type of environment I would like to get to the top.