The NHL coaching community is a small, tight-knit one but, as in other life circles, some friendships are tighter than others.
The Rangers’ Gerard Gallant and the Lightning’s Jon Cooper were tight before their teams met in the Eastern Conference Final and will be tight once it concludes, though the friendly chitchat may be paused until the final handshake line. Game 2 was Friday night at Madison Square Garden after the Rangers dominated Wednesday night’s opener, 6-2.
The Lightning have won back-to-back Stanley Cups and have reached the conference finals in six of the last eight seasons. Gallant, in his fourth NHL stop, is in his first season with the Rangers after guiding the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Cup Final in 2018.
“You’ve got your acquaintances, you’ve got your friends, you’ve got everybody and then you’ve got guys that you text with on a regular basis,” Cooper said. “He’s one of them.”
Gallant, 58, first became an NHL head coach in 2004 and Cooper, 54, took over the Lightning’s bench in 2013. But it wasn’t until Gallant was an assistant on Cooper’s Team Canada staff at the 2017 World Championships in Germany and France that they really met.
“We had a great experience over there,” Gallant said. “We had three weeks together. We had lunch together every day. Dinner together. You get to know a guy real well. We had a lot of fun over there. Enjoyed it.”
At that point, Gallant stifled a laugh, most likely at some memory he didn’t care to share with the media.
“Since that time, we’ve been pretty good friends,” Gallant said. “Texting each other a lot. I’ve been congratulating him a lot on winning championships. When we won the World Championship last year, he kept texting me. It’s great when you get a guy like that in friendship. Obviously, we both want to win real bad in this series. But friendships are great to have around the league with people like that.”
Outwardly, there seems to be few similarities other than their shared passion for coaching and their Canadian heritage.
Gallant was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and was a rugged left wing in the NHL for the Red Wings and Lightning from 1985-95. That was an era when power forwards were expected to be productive offensively and to protect their teammates. From 1986-90, Gallant had four straight seasons for the Red Wings in which he scored at least 34 goals, had at least 72 points and drew at least 216 penalty minutes.
For comparison, Predators defenseman Mark Borowiecki led the NHL in penalty minutes this season with 151 and was one of only 13 players who reached 100 penalty minutes.
Everything about Gallant screams old school, from his mannerisms to his mug.
Cooper, originally from Prince George, British Columbia, strikes a much more photogenic pose behind the Lightning bench with his well-tailored suits. His path to the NHL took a drastically different one from Gallant’s, and Cooper never played professionally.
He was a club hockey player and, mainly, a standout lacrosse player at Hofstra — yes, in Hempstead, where he occasionally would look for ways into Nassau Coliseum for Islanders games — before getting his law degree and then going into practice for five years.
But his athletic interests never waned and Cooper, after first taking a job as a high school assistant coach, had a successful career as a U.S. junior hockey coach in the NAHL and USHL before joining the Lightning organization to coach their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2010.
They might not be a full-on Oscar and Felix, but there is a bit of an “Odd Couple” vibe to Gallant and Cooper.
“I didn’t know Coop,” Gallant said. “We started chatting, got along real well in three weeks and there was a relationship built right away. The more times you play each other, you sort of text and say ‘Hi,’ and it just grew from there. It’s not like we’re spending summers together or nothing like that.
“He’s a nice guy, we had fun. I had to babysit him a little bit over there and take care of him.”
“I’m not telling you.”