NHL Coach Jon Cooper and His Lacrosse Roots

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper scored 99 points in his lacrosse career at Hofstra, playing for now Team USA men's lacrosse coach John Danowski.

Before coaching hockey was on his radar, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was sniping on the lacrosse field.

The former Hofstra attackman’s lacrosse background runs deep, as it does with so many Canadian hockey players. The connection between the two sports isn’t lost on him, as Cooper has used lessons from lacrosse to up his hockey coaching approaches.

“What they [both have] is hand eye combination,” said Cooper. “You have to have it in lacrosse and you have to have it in hockey. I always look at guys who can bat pucks out of the air all the time, and I always wonder if they were lacrosse players.”

The NHL is littered with lacrosse talent, from Matt Moulson to Reilly Smith to Tyler Seguin to current Lightning scorer Steven Stamkos.

In three years with the Jr. A Richmond Roadrunners of the BCJLL, Cooper combined for 129 points. His best season was his last, in 1988, where he picked up 52 points, 25 of which were goals, over 15 games.

Cooper even got a sniff of the Senior A level, the highest level of box lacrosse in Canada. The Lightning coach made a single appearance for the Outlaws Sr A team, before college commitments prevented him from pursuing an indoor career.

In his one game with the Richmond Outlaws of the WLA, Cooper tallied a goal and an assist.

Cooper did play hockey growing up, but it was lacrosse where he made his mark at the Division I level before starting to coach in high school.

“For me, they’re both games you give and go,” he said. “You give it up to get it back. You play with the exact same mentality. That’s number one. Number two, I grew up with box lacrosse, so it’s five-on-five. Again, it’s the same. It’s a physical sport, and you have to play both ends of it. Both ends of the rink. You’re working line combinations, there’s so many similarities. I truly believe the guys who play lacrosse when they grow up, they translate, they work well together.”

Lacrosse to hockey wasn’t the only adjustment Cooper has had to make. Going from indoor to outside the box also posed its challenges before he could star for a Division 1 team.

“I played [field] in the Canada Games but that was after I played at Hofstra,” said Cooper. “The hard thing for me was learning to play with my left hand. I was a righty, and we always would throw passes behind our back. That was frowned on a little bit when I played so I had to learn to play with my left, and that was the most challenging. The thing that helped me was, in box lacrosse you have a big huge goalie in a little tiny net. In field lacrosse you have the small goalie and a big huge net. So I found it was a little easier to score in field lacrosse, and I think that’s what helped me.”

By the time Cooper graduated from Hofstra, the Major Indoor Lacrosse League was fledgling. After giving up box in Canada, Cooper said the new pro league was just a little out of his reach.

“It [pro lacrosse] was just starting,” he said. “I graduated in 89. It was kind of just figuring itself out. I never put myself in that place. I played Division I lacrosse, and hung in there decently but I don’t know if I would have handled it with the big boys there.”

Before he stepped behind the bench, Cooper had a good influence about the nuances of coaching with John Danowski. Danowski went on to coach national championship teams at Duke; Cooper didn’t fare too poorly himself on the coaching path.

“He’s won national championships since then,” Cooper said. “We’re in contact with each other and it’s great to see the success he has as my only college coach.”

Cooper’s Lightning are off to a hot start in the NHL (currently tied for the league lead with 38 points), and his focus is on his hockey career. But count coach Cooper as one of the many multi-sport athletes whom lacrosse has influenced.

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