TAMPA, Fla. - It was only four years ago that Jon Cooper and Anders Lee were toiling away, coach and player, in the United States Hockey League, the smaller-scale American answer to Canadian junior hockey.
But both were on the rise. Lee was the star of the Green Bay Gamblers and Cooper a coach trying to work his way up through the lower ranks of the game after a circuitous path. The British Columbia native graduated from Hofstra in 1989, got his law degree and began coaching high school hockey in Michigan before dropping the law career.
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Safe to say both coach and player took the right path, with Thursday night's game here between the Islanders and Lightning the first matchup for Lee and Cooper at the NHL level.
"Not to embarrass him, but he's one of not only the greatest players I've coached for that level, but just as good a human being," Cooper said on Wednesday, just after the Lightning practiced and before the Islanders stepped onto the ice. "A born leader, and he's a winner. The kid just finds a way to will teams to win."
Lee, who has six goals and four assists in 12 games since being called up from Bridgeport last month, has good memories of that 2009-10 season in Green Bay, a post-high school pre-collegiate year he used to hone his game. The Islanders selected Lee in the sixth round of the 2009 draft and he was off to Notre Dame after that USHL year, which ended with a Clark Cup championship.
"I knew he was on the fast track to this level," Lee said of his old coach. "He just treated us like pros. We were 19- 20-year-old guys and he treated us like men, he expected us to have a mature approach. I learned you need to act like [a pro] and you'll go out and play like one."
Both Cooper and Lee told the story of that championship series, which featured a rally from 2-0 down in a best-of-five final and a final-minute tying goal in Game 3 from Lee.
"They were doing a live news shot in the last minute, saying, 'Fargo's about to win the Clark Cup!' And Anders is scoring the tying goal in the background," Cooper said. "We win in triple overtime, win the next two games. He was our MVP. Phenomenal. He's just a class, class individual."