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Lightning’s Jon Cooper on way to be franchise’s best

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Away from the lectern, he is friendly. Funny. Approachable.

In such moments, you would never think of him as dynamic, as charismatic, as the unifying factor on a young team. There, Jon Cooper is merely Jon, the old attorney, the former Lacrosse player. You wonder if he is ever mistaken for just another fan.

But behind the bench, he is calm, and he is cerebral. And he is on his way to being the finest coach this franchise has known.

I know, I know. John Tortorella used to work here, and he won a Stanley Cup. That is admission to immortality, and because of it, a lot of people will always salute Torts’ memory. They’ll chuckle about the Torts’ bouts of rage, they’ll roll their eyes over how combative he was.

But if I were a player, I would rather play for Cooper.

Doesn’t that count for something?

Think about Cooper and his standing among the former Lightning coaches. John Tortorella won a cup. Guy Bouchard got to the doorstep. Terry Crisp made the playoffs with impossible speed. Jacques Demers had to put up with both Takashi Okubo and Art Williams.

Then there is Cooper. Six more wins, and he becomes the finest Bolt coach of them all.

He is calm. He is cerebral. He is a chess master, quietly making his adjustments without sacrificing his reason. He is Tony Dungy. He is Joe Maddon. And, without his own ego getting involved, he has molded this young team into something special.

Anyone can yell. Anyone can blame. That’s not what coaching is these days. Coaching is instruction, and coaching is tapping a vein. Cooper has demonstrated he can do that. He is, as former Detroit coach Mike Babcock called him, “a serial winner.”

Oh, Torts was the right man for the right time. You can suggest that the vapors went to his head after he left the Lightning, and you wouldn’t be far off. But Torts was a drill sergeant, a cattle boss, leather lungs and all. Look, for all of his quirks, Torts was good to me. And he was fun to cover.

It’s funny to remember that Torts originally was a peacemaker. He was the one who was going to make Vinny Lecavalier responsible. He was going to make his players look into a mirror and become self-aware. And, yes, he was going to make other coaches shut their yaps.

And he won. Press conferences were maddeningly short, because any question might set him off. But he was better with the media here than his reputation. He was just beginning to surrender to the demons that eventually possessed him. I liked him.

His goaltenders didn’t. From time to time, Torts’ frustration would grow. “Can’t anyone stop a puck?” he would say. He was a pusher, and the voices of those guys are heard for only so long.

When Torts was here, he won every coaching award this team has ever won. He won more games here than anyone. So what if he did it with a boot to the bottom and snarl in his voice? He wasn’t here to make your day sunny. And in some ways, as long as he is the only coach to win a Cup here, he will remain the iconic coach of the Lightning.

For the long haul, however, I’d choose Cooper. I know he has only been at the job a short time. I know he hasn’t won enough yet. I know it was only a couple of series ago when there were whispers wondering if Cooper was tough enough to get the urgency required out of the Lightning.

Still, urgency isn’t the problem with the Lightning. They are committed.

Crispy, too, was the right man for the right time. Oh, the players got tired of his voice in those early days of dysfunction, and cheapness took over. But Crisp didn’t always trust his players. Petr Klima drove him crazy, for instance. And once squeezing nickels became more important than winning hockey games, he was gone.

Say this for Crispy. He told a good a story. The one about the fan who asked why he didn’t play a really, really fat guy in goal. The time that a fan, in a rare moment of a lead, saw that the other team had pulled its goalie. “He pulled his goalie,” the fan yelled. “You can pull yours.”

Then there was Jacques, a teddy-bear who really wasn’t what he pretended to be. Remember when he came in, threatening the world, saying the cheating stopped here? That wasn’t Jacques. Jacques wanted to be everyone’s buddy. The truth be told, Demers was here only because he worked cheap.

Then there was Bouchard. I liked Bouchard, too. He was willing to think outside the box, and he got the Lightning to a conference title game where they had little reason to be there.

But Bouchard was a mad scientist, and he began to vary from the plan. Instead of thinking outside the box, Guy moved outside the box and took up residence.

Who else? I felt sorry for Barry Melrose, because he wasn’t here long enough for his lunch order to arrive. Yeah, he was a glorious mistake, even by the standards of the Cowboys, owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie. He was a TV commentator walking by the arena, and the ownership thrust a team in his hands. Rick Tochet was just another guy. Steve Ludzik is memorable only for being half of the Luds and Duds duo with general manager Rick Dudley.

Look, Cooper isn’t the most interesting interview the Lightning has had. He doesn’t rant about his players, and he rarely shows his displeasure. He is a teacher, a man of perspective in a chaotic sport. He stands there most nights, his arms folded, working on a piece of gum, a flat line of emotions. Most of his young players have never known any other way.

It is amazing how quickly Cooper has forged this team. Last year, his players were mostly rookies. It was like pulling up a AAA baseball team and winning in the majors right away. This year, in year two for many of them, the Lightning has been one of the finest teams in the NHL. He makes you wonder what the next 10 years will be like.

It’s odd. Who is a least likely coaching star? He was a Lacrosse player, a criminal lawyer. But this is what he was meant to do. On most nights, he remains a huge advantage for his team.

OK, OK. Cooper has some advantages. Heck, he’d probably tell you that he has a lot of advantages. Jeff Vinik is the best owner the Lightning has ever had. Steve Yzerman is the best general manager. On the ice, there are weapons like Tyler Johnson and Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop and Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Hey, a grower of teams has to have some talent to grow.

But that said, Cooper has been a fine coach for these Lightning. Think of it this way: Yzerman fired Bouchard two years after he reached the conference finals to make room for Cooper.

You want to know the defining moments for Cooper? They come after defeat (no one is good all the time). They come when the power play stinks or the effort is lacking or the penalty kill is shaky.

The next game, adjustments are made. And the Lightning seems to play much, much better.

Other coaches would brood. They would think about their shortcomings, and who was the cause of them, and they would get angry. Hey, it’s human nature.

But there is no percentage in parsing out blame. Cooper gets that. He is an unruffled bed, a lake with no ripples. Quietly, he tinkers, and usually, he solves. It’s what a coach is supposed to do.

Think of the coaches Tampa Bay has had in its history. How many of them made you proud they were behind this bench, or on that sideline, or in this dugout. Not many.

Cooper is one of them. And there is no one in the league you’d rather have.

 

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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