Jon Cooper was back in familiar territory on Long Island Friday night, under rather extraordinary circumstances.
Last night's visit by the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Nassau Coliseum provided a bit of a homecoming for its new coach, who graduated from Hofstra in 1989 with a degree in business administration. He played three seasons on the school's lacrosse team and one on its club hockey team.
"I did a little reminiscing tour down Hempstead Turnpike. I saw those areas where we used to go on some Friday and Saturday nights," Cooper said before the game against the Islanders. "I had nothing but great memories at Hofstra. I loved it here and had a lot of fun."
Cooper graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., in 1997 and took his first coaching gig as a favor for a local judge, whose son's team needed a coach in 1999. In that one season he led Catholic Central High of Grand Rapids, Mich., to a regional championship.
Though still practicing law, he took a job coaching the Metro Jets in Waterford Township, Mich., in 2001 and led them to the USA National Hockey Junior B championship. That was the start of a coaching journey that took him through six states and five teams.
"It was the littlest things that you had to get used to whenever there was a change," Cooper said. "Whether it was how you get to each rink, where's the locker room, where's the best restaurant to go to, it wasn't easy."
He stopped practicing law in 2003 after becoming the coach of the Texarkana Bandits of the NAHL. He won two league titles with the Bandits, who were re-located to St. Louis during his tenure from 2003-2008.
It was off to Wisconsin where his Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL won the Clark Cup in 2010. That success earned him a job with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals. The Admirals finished atop the AHL standings for 2011-12. From there he moved to the Syracuse Crunch, Tampa Bay's top affiliate, and when Lightning GM Steve Yzerman fired coach Guy Boucher on March 24, Cooper got the call.
"There's not a chance that I have been given a second to let this sink in," Cooper said. "You're just pulled in a lot of different directions, especially when you're brand new and you don't know the landscape."
"It's been good so far," said Lightning winger Martin St. Louis. "He has a lot of enthusiasm and we're playing some good hockey right now. It was an adjustment for us in a short period of time, but it wasn't too hard with him."
"He has the guys loose and we're just having fun right now," said rookie center Tyler Johnson, who played under Cooper with the Norfolk Admirals two years ago.
"I expected a few changes, but he is still the same guy," Johnson said. "He's just one of those guys that gets along with everyone and we're having a blast playing for him right now."