Jon Cooper watched his new hockey team Tuesday night from the press box high above the Forum ice. After the home team won, it was down to the dressing room for a 10:30 meeting. Quick, informal, no trumpets. Cooper emerged a hero nonetheless.
“I think I was extremely popular when, on my first day on the job, I gave them the day off,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s new coach said with a smile.
What did Cooper say to the players? Why give up a law practice for hockey? And, of course, what’s it like to be the only living coach in North America who even remotely knows what the Miami Heat were attempting Wednesday in going for a 28th consecutive win?
First things first: Cooper’s talk to his team.
“You’re walking into a room with expectations, I’m sure, on their side,” he said. “There’s just that level of uncertainty for a lot of the guys. What’s that saying? You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I wasn’t long with the guys. I just wanted to explain to them a little bit about who I am and what we expect. I’m not in here to reinvent the wheel, but I’m going to teach you some habits and they’re going to be winning habits. I think the guys were pretty receptive. When I left, I had a good vibe.”
These last few days have been slightly mind-blowing for the new coach. He’s living out of a hotel. He packed two bags when he left his job coaching the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, one filled with hockey equipment, the other with just enough clothes. It’s a trip he never dreamed of making.
“I’ll tell you, 100 percent, I did not picture myself standing here, not at all,” Cooper said.
But here he is, ready to work a room at the top. Cooper’s reputation, while paying his share of dues on a nonetheless rapid climb up the coaching ladder, is that he ends up with players in his corner and him in theirs.
“You have to have that ability to find out who’s who, who needs your arm around them and who needs their knuckles tapped,” he said. “It’s just finding that balance. … But it takes time to learn about the guys.
“I think the guys, they all want to win. So if you give them a recipe that they think is going to work, it’s really hard for guys not to buy into it. Once they taste a little bit of the winning. … Once you get the taste, you become thirsty all the time.”
It got silly last season in Norfolk, as Cooper’s AHL entry won its final 28 games in the regular season. The Heat couldn’t beat that.
“Once we got into the 20s, we truly believed we’d never lose again, 100 percent,” Cooper said. “That’s where we were at, that’s how confident we were. I barely had to speak to the team. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m sure the Miami Heat is going through the same thing. You walk in, and one team knows they’re winning and one team knows they’re not. And that’s it. It’s over.”
The new coach says he also had a pretty fair win streak going when he was a trial lawyer in Michigan, the Law Office of Jon D. Cooper.
DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?
OK, it wasn’t like the movies. Still …
“You have to sell to a jury, right or wrong, what you’re doing, what you’re preaching,” Cooper said. “I always found it a competition. You were always battling for your client, but I always turned it into a competition between me and the prosecutor. That’s what fueled my fire a little bit. It’s a game. It’s no different than trying to talk to your team. You’re trying to sell something to those guys in front of you.”
But in 2003, he decided enough was enough. He had contracted the coaching bug (he even coached his law school’s hockey team, for those of you who did not know that law schools had hockey teams).
“I was in my early 30s and I’d been practicing law for five years and I thought, ‘Is this what I’m going to be doing 35 years from now?’ I liked what I was doing, but I didn’t love what I was doing. Here, I love what I’m doing.”