VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Tampa Bay Lightning are about as far away geographically from Vancouver as any two teams in the NHL.
But there are plenty of connections between teams from the largest city in Canada’s Pacific Northwest region and the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is a native of Prince George, British Columbia, and spent time in Vancouver as a kid while visiting his grandparents. Assistant coach Rick Bowness spent the previous seven seasons as a member of the Canucks’ coaching staff before being let go at the end of last season.
And for veteran defenseman Sami Salo, he made a return to a city that he called home for nine seasons while a member of the Canucks.
Cooper had plenty of friends and family make the trip from Prince George for Wednesday night’s game, which he said filled at least two suites inside Rogers Arena, to see his first game in Vancouver as an NHL head coach.
“I grew up here, so it was just a feeling of home,’’ Cooper said of landing in Vancouver on Monday. “I don’t get to come back here very often, so when I do it’s fond memories. We do come back in the summer, but I know a lot of people are coming. ... There might be a few Lightning jerseys in the crowd.’’
Coming back as an NHL coach for the first time holds as much meaning for Cooper as it does for a player returning home to play in front of friends and family.
“For people who have not been able to see me coach (in the NHL) except for on TV, this is a big one,’’ Cooper said. “Being born and raised in Prince George and knowing the people that are coming down, it’s a little surreal, actually.’’
For Salo, his “homecoming” did not go as planned as an upper-body injury kept the defenseman out of the lineup. But judging by the number of hugs and handshakes that greeted the 39-year-old in his return to Rogers Arena, it didn’t take away from the experience of coming back to town for the first time since joining the Lightning.
“I have a lot of really good memories from the city and the organization,’’ Salo said. “I was fortunate to be able to play here for a long period of time and I am very thankful for those times.’’
In addition to all the games played in Rogers Arena, which included an appearance in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, Salo also won a bronze medal during the 2010 Olympics in the building while playing for Finland.
“The Stanley Cup final, and really all the playoff times, and winning the bronze medal in this (visiting team) locker room, stand out,’’ Salo said. “And obviously my kids growing up in this city. My family and I were fortunate to spend time in this city and really thankful for our time here.’’