Before Jon Cooper became a Stanley Cup-winning coach, he was a lawyer who hung out in college hockey circles
They called themselves the Wednesday Night Club.
A group of friends in East Lansing, Mich., all met up once a week at Reno's East to have dinner and listen to Michigan State hockey coach Ron Mason do his weekly radio show. Then, they'd proceed to a favorite bar in town, whether it was Sneakers or Paul Revere's Tavern for a few drinks.
They came together from all walks of life.
There was a sports information director, Nate Ewell. There was a local sportscaster, Jeremy Sampson, and two local sportswriters, Neil Koepke and Rico Cooney. There were Michigan State hockey staffers, Willie Mitchell, Joe Ford and Dan Singleton. There was an insurance claims adjuster, Joe Gladziszewski. And there was a local lawyer and public defender named Jon Cooper.
Yes, that Jon Cooper.
Yes, the head coach who just led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
Just 20 years but seemingly a lifetime ago, Cooper was a lawyer in Michigan, who hung out and lived with a group of college hockey fans.
They attended Michigan State games together. They drove to NCAA regionals. They flew to NCAA Frozen Fours. In fact, each spring, they gathered at Revere's Tavern to do a fantasy college hockey NCAA tournament player draft. No money was involved, of course, because several participants worked in and around college athletics. But bragging rights were important enough for this group.
Never did they imagine one of them would someday become an NHL head coach, and certainly not the lawyer who worked out of an Lansing strip mall and hadn't played competitive hockey since high school.
But that began to change in 1999, when a local judge urged Cooper to coach a struggling high school team that the judge's son played on, launching an unheard of ascent to hockey's greatest heights.
By 2003, Cooper ditched his law career to become a full-time hockey coach, accepting a job with a junior team in Texarkana, Texas. In just 10 years, he rose all the way to NHL head coach, winning championships with the St. Louis Bandits in the North American Hockey League, the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League and the Norfolk Admirals in the American Hockey League along the way.
Cooper reached the top Monday night, leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
“When you see all the success he’s had to get there, you shouldn’t be surprised,” Ewell said. “But it’s still strange to look at it: Here’s this guy I knew as a lawyer. Now, he’s winning the Stanley Cup.”
Living with 'Coop'
If you drive east of Michigan State's campus on Burcham Drive, you'll spot a turnoff for Wild Oak Drive. The road quickly comes to a dead end, where a cluster of condos are located.
This is where Cooper lived. He bought a place while attending Cooley Law School in town.
There were three bedrooms. The master bedroom, where Cooper stayed, was in the basement. The kitchen and living room were on the main floor. There were two more bedrooms upstairs.
Cooper, looking to rent out the upstairs bedrooms, asked Ewell to live with him.
They met a year earlier at Rick's American Cafe, celebrating Ewell's 24th birthday. Mitchell, the volunteer coach at Michigan State, knew Cooper from high school in Saskatchewan and brought him to hang out that evening.
Soon, Ewell brought another roommate, Jeremy Sampson, aboard.
They were all early in their professional careers and working long hours, so there wasn't a lot of down time at the condo. But when they did get together, sports was usually the centerpiece.
They often watched Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. In the winter, they played pickup games on a small pond located behind the condo. They nicknamed it 'Lake Orr,' after hockey great Bobby Orr. Cooper often wore the jersey of his favorite NHL team on the pond, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One of Cooper's fascinations was end-of-the-year montages that TV networks put together. Whether it was CBC's Stanley Cup Playoff montage or CBS Sports' 'One Shining Moment' at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament, Cooper would sit by the TV with a VHS tape ready to record the montages. He'd later watch them back.
Cooper also became a regular with the Wednesday Night Club.
Through that group, he got to know Mason, who was already college hockey's all-time winningest coach.
"He was around Ron Mason and his staff a lot," longtime journalist Neil Koepke said. "He used to brainstorm with those guys, ask them questions. But he also got to know the players. Coop would hang out with Brian Maloney, who turned 21 a few days after he got here. So, he understood players, too. He could relate to the coaching angle. He could relate to the player angle. And he got in the middle of that.
"He's the new-wave coach. He's exciting. He's engaged. But he's not aloof to the players and just screaming and hollering at them all the time. He's educated, but he's not over the top. I think that's why players love him."
Catching the coaching bug
At first, those around Cooper thought he might get into the hockey world through his law degree and become an agent. Cooper briefly connected with one agent and did some scouting for him, but then judge Thomas Brennan asked Cooper to coach his son's high school team.
Lansing Catholic Central was not exactly a powerhouse, though.
"It was a rag-tag team," said Joe Ford, who later took over that same program. "In that first year, they won a regional title. For a team in our little area to win a regional title is pretty rare. I think it's happened three times in 20 years. He revived that program."
The following year, Cooper joined with Kelly Miller to be an assistant coach with the Capital Centre Pride in the NAHL.
Ford distinctly remembers a moment when Cooper first walked into the coaches' office and saw Miller pull back the curtains on their draft board to see the names and rankings of the players.
Cooper looked at Ford and said, "This is pretty cool, isn't it?"
"You could see the gears grinding," Ford said, "and the fire in his eyes. It was like, 'I could do this. This is really interesting.' He practiced law while he was coaching the Metro Jets and Honeybaked (the next three years). He never fully departed from law. But you could tell the gears were starting to grind, that this was something he could do for a living. I remember that moment, for sure."
In 2003, he finally decided to give up on practicing law to take a head coaching job in Texarkana, Texas.
Each member of the Wednesday Night Club recalls memorable moments on Cooper's rise to the NHL.
Koepke recalls attending Ewell's wedding in 2004. He and Cooper were both groomsmen and they sat next to each other at the rehearsal dinner. During the meal, Cooper took a phone call from Michigan State assistant coach Brian Renfrew.
Koepke overheard the conversation.
"I remember hearing Coop say, 'You've got to take this goalie. You won't regret it. You've got to take him. I know he's small. But you won't regret it."
Michigan State did take that goalie. It was Jeff Lerg, who later led the Spartans to the 2007 NCAA national title.
Some remember the way players follow him.
Cooper had Erik Condra on one of his midget teams in Michigan. Then, he brought Condra to Texarkana for junior hockey and later brought him to the Lightning. Cooper also had Pat Maroon with his NAHL team in St. Louis. They won a Robertson Cup together. Last summer, Cooper brought Maroon to Tampa and now they have a Stanley Cup together, too.
Cooper also still stays in touch with his old friends.
"He was a great friend, a great roommate," Sampson said. "As his career continued, I just wanted him to be successful. Watching him hoist the Cup, that was special, no doubt. Knowing his story as intimately as I do, knowing how hard he worked to get to where he is today, I'm just really happy.
"The Stanley Cup is the coolest trophy in all of sports. It's really cool that Coop will be on it."
On Monday night, the Wednesday Night Club gathered once again. It was through text message this time, though. They reminisced about the old days. Ewell even drank from a pint glass from Mayfair Bar, one of their old East Lansing hangouts.
There was one other big difference, though.
This time, Cooper wasn't rushing to record the end-of-the-season montage.
He was the centerpiece of it.