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Lightning coach Jon Cooper was a Hofstra lacrosse player

Head coach Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay

Head coach Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning talks to his team during a break in the first period against the New York Rangers during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There was absolutely no way to imagine this back when Jon Cooper was a studious, hockey-loving, mullet-wearing midfielder for Hofstra's lacrosse team in the late 1980s. There had been nothing to hint that he would become the successful coach of a team in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

And yet his former teammates and coach are not the least bit surprised.

"Some people just have 'it.' You can't say what 'it' is, but he's got it," said Marc Riccio, who played four years with Cooper, was a suitemate in a Hofstra dorm and still stays in touch with his buddy, who is coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning in its series against the Rangers. "It wasn't that I thought about him being a coach, per se. But it's the head coach who creates culture. He's a master of creating great culture, and culture beats strategy every time."

Steve Buck, another Hofstra lacrosse alumnus, said, "He has always been successful. Other players looked up to him because it always seemed like whatever he wanted to do, it just seemed to happen. Put it this way, he made it happen."

John Danowski, who grew up on Long Island and coached Cooper for four years at Hofstra, said, "I would talk to the kids quite a bit about their future and their careers. He wanted to be an agent because he knew a lot of guys [in the National Hockey League]. He was tremendously bright. And he was charismatic. He just had this smile, this way about him that made people want to be around him. That's a great combination."

Everyone who was around the lacrosse team back then is amazed about and impressed with the unlikely journey of the young man who was serious about his studies and his sports, who wore a San Francisco Giants cap backward over his long hair, who often went to Nassau Coliseum to see Western Canadian friends play and who played hockey there himself with the university's club team. But there is a difference between "amazed and impressed" and surprised.

"Everyone had him pegged as a general manager," said Doug Edmonds, a teammate and friend who shared a place in Huntington with Cooper when the latter worked on Wall Street. "We figured that's one of the reasons he went to law school.

"I don't think any of us expected to ever see him where is now. But everyone thought he was going to be a success no matter what path he took," said Edmonds, now a corporate sales representative in New Jersey.

Cooper's path to the National Hockey League playoffs is something out of a Disney movie. He graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, and began coaching Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids as a favor to a judge whose son was on the team. The squad won a regional title and Cooper was hooked on coaching.

From there it was on to a Junior B team in Michigan, the North American League's Texarkana Bandits, the U.S. Hockey League's Green Bay Gamblers, the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch. The latter is the Lightning's affiliate, which put him in position to get the big job when general manager Steve Yzerman fired Guy Boucher in March 2013.

"The thing that I'm most impressed with is his desire to want to do this," said Danowski, now the coach at Duke, who was back on Long Island this week after the birth of his first grandchild. "He has learned to coach at the grass roots. His assistant coach said to me, 'Jon is terrific at handling the relationships.' ''

Cooper's own athletic roots trace back to his start as an indoor lacrosse star as a teenager in British Columbia. Harry Royle, Danowski's predecessor on Hempstead Turnpike, took a chance on a kid who had almost no experience playing under the wide-open sky.

"The first time he stepped onto a lacrosse field was when we were freshmen," said Riccio, who went on to be a vice president with the Jets and now heads a special events production company. "If I remember correctly, he had a couple goals that first game against Princeton. He was a very good player. He could run the field, handle the stick very well. He could adapt to the game quickly."

When he finally got a chance to start as a junior, Cooper had five goals and five assists against Drexel and six goals and an assist against Maryland-Baltimore County. At the time, Danowski confessed to Newsday's Mike Candel that he should have started Cooper sooner: "Call it bad judgment. There's no other way to explain it."

Edmonds remembers Cooper being like an older brother, taking him to lunch because he knew the younger player wasn't from Long Island and didn't have a built-in circle of friends. Even more memorable was Cooper's fandom.

"He would read the Newsday sports pages for an hour and a half. He loved the cities, the fan bases. He would know more about front offices than most people know about the players," Edmonds said. "He would do mock drafts before there were mock drafts. I'd know 20 college players and he would know 50."

When Danowski gave the team a night off in Maryland before a game against Towson, Cooper attended his first major league baseball game in Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium. "It was a cold Friday night, no one was in the stands. But for him, it was like he was in Disney World," Edmonds said.

This past January, on a night off before a Lightning game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Danowski met for two hours with his former player and they talked, coach-to-coach. They also reminisced, with Danowski recalling not being angry that one of his top midfielders was playing ice hockey on Wednesday nights.

"I actually went over to watch him play," Danowski said the other day. "I always told my guys, 'You only go this way once.' ''

Cooper has made his own way, and if he does something inspired during this series, his old friends from Hofstra will not be at all surprised.


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