Cooper’s roadmap

by Dan D’Uva || AHL On The Beat Archive

From town to town and team to team, Jessie Cooper joins her husband, Jon.

Relocating from Green Bay, Wis., to Norfolk, Va. to Syracuse, N.Y., just in the last three years, the pair has experienced six major moves since Jon’s first coaching job in 1999 at Lansing Catholic Central High School.

With headline-grabbing success at each stop (three tiers of junior hockey, two towns in the American Hockey League, and a drawer full of championship rings) Jessie repeatedly hears the same question from new friends and acquaintances: How does he do it? How does your husband keep winning everywhere he goes?

“It’s easy,” she says. “He’s got three things: an understanding wife, a loyal dog, and one hell of a goalie.”

“That pretty much sums up how it’s gone for the last few years,” says the reigning AHL Coach of the Year, who’s cornered the market on awards and championships in every league he has worked.

“Ultimately everybody will rain accolades on myself and my team and my staff,” Cooper says, “But really the unsung hero is my wife, because she’s the one who has to move with our three kids who are all under five.”

The accolades are the product of success on the ice, but the precipitous rise to North America’s top development league is no fluke in Cooper’s mind.

“I didn’t just wheel in and win the Calder Cup in year two,” Cooper says. “Well, how’d you win it in year two? Well, this is really like year 12. Because I coached high school, I coached junior… It’s all a progression of all those years. I’m fairly convinced if my first year coaching job was the [USHL’s] Green Bay Gamblers, we don’t win the whole thing. If my first year was coaching the [NAHL’s] St. Louis Bandits, we don’t win the whole thing right away. That’s what learning is.”

Teaching is the job at hand for Cooper, who often held leadership roles as an athlete and whose mother always expected him to be a teacher. Cooper’s Crunch players are his pupils -– ranging in age from 19 to 30 -– hoping to make the grade and earn a promotion to the National Hockey League. Many of those on the younger side are mere months removed hearing their names called in the NHL’s amateur draft and are often accustomed to being head of the class. Meanwhile, Cooper chides the wide eyes of youth, which often look past minor-league development.

“That is the Achilles heel of any player. I think when players get drafted at 18 years old all they think about — they’ve bypassed everybody. I don’t even think they’ve heard of a league called the American League when they get drafted. As soon as they get drafted they’re all going right to the NHL.

“I always say, ‘You can wheel in and take the driver’s exam, the written exam, and get an A, but that doesn’t make you a good driver. You’ve got to get behind the wheel and drive the car.’ And it’s no different for players and coaches.”

Call it a lesson learned for Cooper’s 2011-12 club, the Norfolk Admirals, who won the Calder Cup and set a host of AHL records.

The contributions of Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson, both rookies with somewhat unheralded backgrounds, may be the biggest testament to Cooper’s tutelage. Both made the AHL’s all-rookie list in 2011-12, while Conacher picked up Rookie-of-the-Year and AHL MVP honors.

So what is Cooper’s method? What knowledge does he impart that rings true with so many of his players through the years?

“They need to understand that it’s a yearly process for them,” Cooper says. “So that next year of junior you play, or when you jump into the American League, you should just be thinking about that year –- it’s no different -– and how are you going to build yourself from September to June, because hopefully you’re playing in June. And if you are playing in June, that means you’ve gotten better. And then when that wraps up, you sit back and say, ‘How did this year go? What did I get better at? What didn’t I get better at?’ Then you bring that into September and there you go – you go September to June again.

“And then hopefully one day you wake up at 30 and your bank account has like seven zeros added. And you have all these goals and all these assists because all you did was get better, get better, get better, progress up the ladder, and then eventually got to the top of the mountain.”

An impressive list of high draft choices and NHLers count Jon Cooper as an important influence in their hockey development.

Among those who have reached the summit of the NHL after playing for Cooper is Matt Taormina, a 26-year-old defenseman who spent the 2004-05 season under Cooper in Texarkana of the NAHL. Having split the 2011-12 season between the AHL and NHL in the New Jersey Devils system, Taormina was lured to the Tampa Bay Lighting organization partially because of the chance to once again play for Jon Cooper in Syracuse seven years removed from the first go around – a welcome reuniting for both Cooper and Taormina.

While both sides appreciate and respect the player-coach relationship, Cooper’s own edification involves taking the time to know each player in terms of skill, personality and goals.

“Some guys have goals down that they need to be here at this certain time, others take it day by day, others are unbelievably talented but maybe don’t have the drive, others have the drive but don’t have the talent. You somehow have got to mold. You have to pull out the best in all these players, yet build on their weaknesses. That’s a tough thing to do. First you have to recognize this in all your players and then somehow find a way to connect the dots.

“But you really got to slow down those players who are in a rush to get [to the NHL]. The second you start getting in a rush, you rush your way right out of the league. It’s a mental maturity thing, and those are the things you have to impart on the players. You have to get them to believe in you. Ground them, build them up, then physically and mentally make them as prepared as possible and hopefully they make it.”

While Cooper tries to help usher his players onto the next level the best way he knows how, he balks at setting down long-term goals for himself.

“I think part of the reason I’m in coaching and in hockey is because I don’t look 10 years down the road,” he says. “Part of the reason I love what I do is every single year, to me, it’s how we’re going to win the championship. How we’re going to take 24 guys, mold them into one, and win the whole thing. So I don’t think about two years from now, three years from now.”

Cooper leaves the ‘down-the-road’ business for management. Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and Crunch general manager Julien BriseBois, who plucked Cooper from one of the top American junior gigs with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, have those longer-term issues to sort out while Cooper and his coaching staff focus on the smaller-scale goal of winning each day, practicing harder than the team down the road, and collecting championship hardware.

“I think it’s good to think that way in a sense because you have to prepare,” Cooper says. “And that’s why you have management. But as a coach, this is what I have and this is what I want to turn it into by the end. And hopefully at the end there’s a big shiny trophy there waiting, and a ring to slip on six months later. That’s what I think about.”

Cooper’s pragmatic side joins the conversation every so often, as his wife Jessie, and their children Julia, Josephine and Jonathan are never far from his thoughts –- or his office at Syracuse’s recently renovated War Memorial Arena.

“That’s the part that goes way under-looked. That’s just more incentive for me to succeed,” Cooper says of his family’s influence. “We’re all in it together. But in saying that, and doing this [coaching hockey] I’ve got to make sure I don’t fall on my face here so that in five years we don’t have any security.

“In looking at five, 10 years of goals, my goal is to keep winning every year. That’s what I want to do. And if you keep winning every year, there’s a really good chance you’re going to move up at some point or that you’ll stay employed every year.”

So far, so good for Cooper, as jobs have presented themselves to him more often than he’s hunted for them. Still only 45 years old, Cooper is among the most talked about young coaches in hockey and is the only coach to have captured national championships at all three tiers of American junior hockey. Throw in a Calder Cup, a list of individual awards and a law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Cooper is a legitimate coaching commodity. With his value on the rise, there is that lingering prospect any AHL Coach of the Year would have to think about: a shot to coach in the NHL.

“If I don’t get an opportunity to coach in the National Hockey League, am I going to lose a night of sleep? Not a chance. Not a chance.

“If the coaching resume ended right now… to me it’s been an unbelievable ride. But in saying all that, now that you’ve done all this stuff, why not try to take it to the next level?”

The time might come for Cooper in the National Hockey League. It’s almost hard to imagine otherwise. His name came up as a candidate for more than one NHL coaching vacancy over the summer, and will likely pop up next summer, too. But for now, Cooper won’t let himself become consumed by next year; he’s just beginning to pen the script for a new chapter of hockey in Syracuse and the journey toward another Calder Cup.

“I don’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, 10 years down the road I better have five years of coaching in the NHL.’ That’s not what’s going to make me happy.

“But it could.”