Former two-time NAHL Coach of the Year, Jon Cooper, who spent more time in the NAHL than any other league the past 10 years, has been named the new head coach for the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
Cooper began his NAHL coaching career with the Texarkana Bandits in the 2003-04 season. He coached in the NAHL a total of five seasons. In 2004-05 and again in 2007-08, he was honored as the NAHL Coach of the Year.
In his first three seasons in Texarkana, Cooper’s teams got better each season. By the time the franchise has moved to St. Louis in 2006-07, Cooper had developed the Bandits into a Robertson Cup contender. During the 2006-07 season, the Bandits and Cooper finally realized their dream and won the Robertson Cup. The next season, the Bandits and Cooper did it again.
Following that season, Cooper moved onto coach Green Bay in the USHL before moving up to the American Hockey League, where he had been for the last 2+ seasons.
Cooper had been coaching Syracuse of the American Hockey League this season, Tampa Bay's top minor league affiliate. He is replacing Guy Boucher, who was fired Sunday after 2 1/2 years with the team.
"He has had success at every level he has coached and is extremely familiar with our organization, as well as our players," Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement. "He has a tremendous record at all levels and we feel he is ready to make the move to the NHL."
The Lightning, at 13-18-1, are in next to last place in the Eastern Conference and appear headed to missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Cooper will coach his first game for the Lightning on Friday night against the New Jersey Devils.
"There is no other team in hockey that I would rather be coaching than the Tampa Bay Lightning," Cooper said in a statement. "It's quite a tribute to Steve Yzerman, (owner) Jeff Vinik and the organization they are building that they are proud to promote from within. I look forward to getting to know the players and getting to work right away."
Cooper’s roots and meteoric rise in coaching flourished in the NAHL, as Stu Hackel recounted in a Sports Illustrated article…
At the time Cooper broke into the league, the Texarkana Bandits played in the arena on the Four States Fairgrounds, a big, metal-sided building with a tin roof that was never intended for hockey. "Barn" is a word that hockey people have long used as slang for their rinks, but this place was far more barn than rink. Its main business is hosting rodeos, horse shows and bull riding competitions. During thunderstorms, the power was likely to go out, making the Bandits the only team in organized hockey to have rain delays.
Four States lacked an experienced crew to set up the rink, so Cooper, his wife Jessie, and his coaching and office staffs had to assemble the boards and get on their knees to paint the lines and logos on the ice themselves.
But the biggest problem was that the arena's other commitments meant that the ice was only available to the club for three-and-a-half months each season, so the Bandits played lots of road games and had no practice time in their own town during the stretch drive every year.
"It was a real education on starting your coaching career at the lowest part of the pole," Cooper recounted. "Getting a Suburban, hooking up a trailer, loading the equipment and driving 120 miles one way to practice in Little Rock because that was the closest ice available. You had to end the year with long, long road trips."
As a result, Cooper's Bandits regularly got upended by their divisional rival, the powerhouse Texas Tornado. "We had good teams, but when you didn't get to practice at all and you didn't get to do all the stuff that other teams could, you'd just fall behind," Cooper said. "It's hard to win in the playoffs. We'd still win 40-plus games a year, but we couldn't get past Texas."
Many of the discussions back then were about game situations and tactics and such; on rare occasions, I'd hear him grumble about the rain delays or the trips to Little Rock. But the unmistakable overall impression Cooper left and still leaves is how much he truly loves hockey and working to get the most out of players.
The Texarkana experience taught him a great deal about perseverance and handling adversity, and when the team's ownership -- which included former St. Louis Blues tough guy Kelly Chase and St. Louis-area businessman Mike Brooks -- moved the Bandits to a modern rink in suburban St. Louis for the 2005-06 campaign, Cooper was glad to have paid those dues.
"It was no surprise we won two straight Robertson Cup championships when we went to St. Louis," he said. "We probably could have won one or two in Texarkana. Once we got to St. Louis, we finally had success against the Tornado. We had a facility to practice in all year and made ourselves better."
When NAHL.com interviewed Cooper a year ago after he had just won the AHL’s Coach of the Year Award, he was asked about coaching in the NHL one day.
“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 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. 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.”
Cooper is now at the top and the entire NAHL family wishes their coaching alum the best of the success in the National Hockey League.