How Jon Cooper's journey to Lightning coach originated at Nassau Coliseum

The Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper reacts after a goal was called back due to an offside against the Boston Bruins during first period NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff hockey action in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The stadium at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., is only a short walk from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

From James M. Shuart Stadium, you can head north on Uniondale Avenue until it crosses the Hempstead Turnpike, then cut right across a plain of parking lots to the Coliseum. It would have taken Jon Cooper only a few minutes to walk from Hofstra, where he went to school and played field lacrosse in the late 1980s, over to the Coliseum to watch the New York Islanders play hockey.

The journey there to coach in the Stanley Cup playoffs has taken Cooper more than three decades.

“I went to a ton of Islander games,” the Tampa Bay Lightning coach told reporters on Wednesday. “I used to sit up there in the upper deck and cheer for them and it was just a great atmosphere. That little time they moved from Nassau (to Brooklyn) was kind of a sad time because we liked going back there. They're passionate fans and you have to love that about being in the National Hockey League ... and being in different buildings where fans are so passionate. I know how it is because I was there first firsthand. It's a cool environment to be in, looking forward to it. A lot of fond memories of being on the Island.”

Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov was the star on Tuesday – like he has been throughout the National Hockey League playoffs -- when Cooper’s team beat the Islanders 4-2 in Tampa to even the Stanley Cup semifinal series at 1-1.

For Game 3 Thursday night, with the series shifted to Long Island, the Islanders’ biggest star could be their old arena. Forlorn and unloved for so many years, the aged little venue has become a powerful force during an unlikely curtain call as the Islanders’ home.

Silent last summer when the Islanders, reborn under coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello, lost the Eastern Conference final to the Lightning in the fan-less pandemic bubble in Edmonton, the Coliseum has probably been the NHL’s loudest arena in the playoffs – at least since state officials allowed the Islanders to admit 12,000 fans starting last round against the Boston Bruins.

The Islanders closed out the Bruins in Game 6 on home ice, just as they did against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round.

When the Islanders moved to Brooklyn in 2015, the Coliseum was renovated and its capacity downsized in the hope of a future without NHL hockey. The Islanders were never supposed to play again at the Coliseum, which opened in 1972 and where the franchise’s dynasty of four straight Stanley Cups ended with their loss to the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.

But evicted from the Barclays Center, which discovered it could make a lot more money in Brooklyn without the Islanders cluttering their schedule, the hockey team returned part-time to Uniondale in 2018.

With the team set to move again next season, about 20 kilometres west to a new arena at Belmont Park, each game at the Coliseum is a bonus for Islanders fans – and New York players.

“It's been really special,” defenceman Ryan Pulock said. “Obviously, the noise that they bring every night inside the building is the loudest in the league. We love feeding off that; when you hear that, it gives you an extra boost of energy. They've helped us get to this point where we are.

“Even around town ... wherever it might be, (fans) are out and about trying to show their support to us. When you go through the playoffs ... and when you go on those runs, I think it's those little moments like that are so special and things that you cherish. Why we play the game is just for all that.”

The Lightning didn’t exist as a franchise when Cooper, as he told The Athletic, was climbing a fence between campus and Coliseum to see the Islanders play between 1985 and 1989.

The lacrosse and hockey player from Prince George, B.C., left Hofstra with a business degree and briefly worked on Wall Street before going to law school in Michigan. It was there that he started playing hockey again for the Legal Eagles, a rec-league within the law community, and met a District Court judge named Thomas Brennan.

Brennan eventually asked Cooper to help out his son’s high school hockey team, and so began a coaching odyssey that took Cooper to the Lightning in 2013 and the Stanley Cup to Tampa last fall.

“I grew up in Canada and I went to a small school, Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask., probably had about 300 people in it,” Cooper said. “My next move from there was to New York, and I remember getting off the plane with my mom, when we flew in and saw all the buildings, I was just taken aback at the sheer size.”

Cooper got used to big places, big stages.

“This core group has gone through ups and downs and we've been in hostile environments before,” he said after Thursday’s morning skate. “I think playing on the road is in general a hostile environment. In the end ... it's just noise, and that's how you have to treat it.

“Trust your process. Trust your plan. You've been in these spots before. The ice is still the same size, and you have to just go about your business. What I do think we got robbed of last year was having fans, whether it was home or road. This is why you play. I think a hockey game, regardless where it's played, when it's in front of a packed building, there's no other sport like it.”

ICE CHIP

Trotz said key Islanders centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who played only three third-period shifts on Tuesday after aggravating an undisclosed injury, did not take the morning skate but the coach will be “surprised” if he doesn’t play on Thursday.

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