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Tampa Bay Lightning already familiar with Cooper

Published:   |   Updated: March 27, 2013 at 01:15 AM
TAMPA -

It’s no easy business, winning hockey games. The new man, named the ninth head coach in Lightning history Monday night, is named Jon Cooper. He has won like crazy wherever he has gone, championships and all.

It’s no easy business. Monday afternoon, Cooper’s new team returned from its fateful Canada trip minus one passenger, who flew home Sunday. As equipment was unloaded from a truck inside The Forum and wheeled to the home dressing room, Guy Boucher, the eighth head coach in Lightning history, loaded personal items into boxes.

Cooper, GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to replace Boucher, is a winner. Then again, so was Boucher. In fact, Boucher leaves with the best winning percentage in franchise history. He still didn’t win lately, and that’s everything in any sport. It’s no easy business.

Now it’s the business of Cooper, 45, to drive the Bolts to better days, if they’re out there. He’ll coach his first game Friday against New Jersey.

It’s an inside job. Cooper won’t have to introduce himself around. The new man has worked for the organization for three seasons, three spectacular seasons at the club’s American Hockey League affiliates, first with the Norfolk Admirals, and until Monday, the Syracuse Crunch.

Of the players on the current Lightning roster, 10 have played for Cooper this season in Syracuse, and he has run the Lightning’s development camps since joining the organization. There’s a comfort level here. It’s the bridge to veterans like Marty St. Louis that could be interesting, convincing them that this team can still win, quickly.

Jon Cooper has won. He’s the reigning AHL Coach of the Year — just as Boucher was when the Bolts hired him. Syracuse leads the AHL in points this season, but it was at Norfolk last season when Cooper’s Admirals went insane, winning 28 consecutive games to end the season, a North American professional hockey record. They went nuts in the playoffs, too, winning the Calder Cup.

In a sense, the safe play for Yzerman, who plucked then rising star Boucher from the AHL ranks without previous NHL experience, would have been to go with a wily NHL veteran like Lindy Ruff, the former eternal Sabres coach.

Instead, Yzerman is going back to the AHL well, to Cooper, who doesn’t have any more NHL experience than Boucher unless you count those development camps. Yzerman said he is “100 percent confident” Cooper is ready.

Like Boucher before him, Cooper was a hot prospect. He interviewed for the head coaching jobs in Washington and Edmonton last offseason, also for jobs as an NHL assistant. Someone was going to scoop him up, so the Lightning did.

Like Boucher, there’s more to Cooper than hockey. He’s known for his engaging personality and wit. He has a degree in business administration from Hofstra University, where he played hockey and four years of lacrosse. And he was a practicing trial attorney after earning his law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Now he is the head coach of the Lightning. It’s a big moment for Cooper and his family. There must be a lot of happy faces. He’s on his biggest case.

Here’s to life. The question is how much of that Cooper will bring with his first kick at the NHL can. I’m sure everyone will talk brave, about how this season isn’t over, but this is really about next season and the seasons after that.

Expect to see a new Lightning approach in their defensive end as soon as Friday, ending what had apparently been a growing point of contention between Yzerman and Boucher. Expect to see some changes after the season, too. I’d be surprised if some of them weren’t major, involving names Bolts fans have come to love.

It’s no easy business.

We knew that Monday as Guy Boucher packed and the truck was unloaded.

There’s a new driver. His name is Jon Cooper.

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