Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on NHL playoffs, hub life and a $46,000 audition

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While his Tampa Bay Lightning players were filming viral videos on jet skis back in Florida, coach Jon Cooper has been situated in one of the least Florida-like locations in the U.S. during the NHL’s paused season.

“Idaho,” Cooper told ESPN this week, indicating that it’s been a summer getaway for his family over the years. “Tampa’s a really tough spot to be in July or August. No humidity here. It’s refreshing.”

The Lightning had around 17 players that self-quarantined locally when the NHL season was put on hold on March 12 for the coronavirus outbreak, with the team seeded second overall in the Eastern Conference. As NHL teams are seeking any advantages in the upcoming postseason tournament, could having that many players self-quarantining give the Lightning a lift?

“Ask me in September,” Cooper said with a laugh. “But there are a few things that played into it. The guys like our community. The weather played something into it. We weren’t considered a major hot spot like the Northeast or Los Angeles were, but the guys still quarantined themselves. They didn’t get to see each other until things opened up. So I don’t know how much of an effect it’ll really have.”

When things opened up, the Lightning hopped on their jet skis, participating in a music video created by forward and burgeoning social media star Alex Killorn:

“Good for them for giving people something to be entertained by. I applaud him and everyone that was involved in that video they made. Extremely well done, and capped off by the Mighty Ducks ‘Flying V’ at the end,” Cooper said.

We spoke with Cooper about the impending NHL training camps and life in the hub city bubbles, along with his thoughts on the playoff format, the Selke Trophy and whether someone can pay $46,000 to become a member of the team.

ESPN: Training camps could open in a few weeks. What are you and your staff doing to prepare? This seems unprecedented. You played 70 games. You’ll have players of varying degrees of fitness. You’ll have three weeks until the playoffs start. Where do you even begin?

Cooper: You look at training camp at the beginning of the season, and to be honest it’s much more difficult than what we’re preparing for now. In the preseason, you have around 65 players and you’re trying to get a look at all of them. While doing that, you’re trying to satisfy what your general manager and your scouts want to see, and on top of that you’re trying to get a team ready for Game 1 of the regular season. The planning is … I’m seven years in the league and I still don’t have it down pat.

In this one, the amount of players is capped, you’re not going to have ice sessions all day, and there’s less demand on your coaching staff in the sense that it’s going to be spread out. You really get to focus just on your team. The difference is that when you’re in camp preparing for Game 1 [of the regular season], you have guys trying to make the team and surprises and different things going on. In this version, it’s almost like a reset. You had a few months to sit here and say, “What did we do well, what didn’t we do well, and what can we improve on?” And then taking advantage of the few weeks before the postseason starts, and working with the exact same players that you had before.

The only surprises are good ones: We’re getting Steven Stamkos back, Victor Hedman back, Jan Rutta back, all these guys that had injuries. You’re working with your same team. So I can’t sit here and say it’s going to be harder than running a 65-man training camp.

ESPN: What was your reaction when the Lightning players were one of only two teams to vote “no” on the new playoff format when the NHLPA approved it? Was that the players’ gig or did you have input on that vote?

Cooper: No, that was their gig, and good for them. They spoke how they felt. Not one thing they said in there [meant] that they didn’t want to play. I think that might have been one of the most misconstrued things. They all wanted to play. They just wanted to make sure that integrity was involved, and that they could have the position they wanted to put themselves in to restart the season. I applaud them for that. But it never came down to a situation where they didn’t want to play.

ESPN: It seems like your team’s experience last postseason — getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a first-round upset — has put a scare into the other elite teams in the NHL, with this necessity to make sure there are “meaningful” games played this summer instead of just having a bye to the Round of 16. Do you think what happened to you was a cautionary tale, and that’s why we now have this round robin?

Cooper: Hmm … I can’t say that it was just us. I think we were the poster child for what happened last year, but remember that the No. 1 seed got knocked out in every division. It wasn’t just us. It was kind of a unique playoff scenario that way.

Do I think there’s validity in playing some more meaningful games? I do. I don’t know how you can satisfy everyone, in the sense of getting the guys the games they need to be prepared. If you look at us last season, I think we clinched the President’s Trophy before any other team even made the playoffs. So we had such a long stretch of playing out the string. But this isn’t that big a stretch. You’re going to play a quick round robin and then you’re right back in it. You can say that the other teams that are in the play-in round are jumping right into the fire right away, but there are pluses and minuses to both. But I don’t think that the longevity of this is enough to say that we played a bunch of meaningless games. They’re trying their best to make sure we play games that matter.

You also have to remember that in our scenario, we’re playing Philadelphia, which at the time [of the pause] was the hottest team in the league. We’re playing the Boston Bruins, who were the best team in the league. And the Washington Capitals, and we know how good they are. So you’re getting some pretty good opponents. If you’re not ready for those games, you’re not going to be ready for a long stretch anyway.

ESPN: That would seem to address the next question, which is how you’re going to handle the round robin, and whether or not you’re going to put the pedal down?

Cooper: I think you have to. First of all, if you tiptoe into games, now you’re just looking to get hurt. You have to play hard, you have to have your head up. The players trained themselves to do this. When you get to training camp, and you’re looking to do things with these guys, normally they’ve been practicing all summer and you can jump right in and go full throttle. I don’t think you can do that in this training camp. You have to ease the guys in a little bit.

But most importantly is the mental aspect of these things. Why did the season stop? Part of the job is to get the guys focused on the mental side. That streamlines right into the round robin. Now you have to get your guys mentally focused for this time, and make sure we’re ready for when elimination games do start. It’s a big mental side of things for me as well as the physical side.

ESPN: How much attention do you pay to mental health for players during a normal playoff run, and is that going to increase under these circumstances? Like being tested every day and being sequestered in a hub hotel?

Cooper: I think with every season that passes by, it becomes a bigger and bigger deal to massage and manage that with every player. That’s why you don’t see teams practice all the time in the playoffs. The mental drain … you want to save that energy for the game.

They’re younger coming into the game. They’re less experienced. Their brains are less developed in so many social situations and competitive situations. That’s why you have the grizzled vet, and why you trade for them at the deadline, so you can have that calm mental feeling. Every year managing that is a big deal. It’s going to be no different this postseason. Especially when you consider why the season was stopped. It was stopped for a global pandemic. I’m sure there are players out there that had concerns. Now you’re adding on to the fact that a player wants more ice time or has this opponent to worry about and is still dealing with what’s going on in the world around them. Looking after that in the playoffs is imperative.

ESPN: When you consider life in these hub cities, what has to happen for the NHL to successfully pull them off?

Cooper: There are pluses and minuses. On the plus side, everybody is going to be together and you get to control the environment. When you go on the road in the playoffs, there’s always keeping guys together and the focus and the coaching that can go on. All those things are big pluses. So is no travel. That’s really going to help the guys and the product.

The obvious negatives are how the family situations are going to be resolved. There’s still some uncertainty. We can only speculate. What’s the bubble going to be like? How much interaction are the players going to have outside of the rink? What’s the family interaction going to be when we’re gone for such a long period of time?

When you’re trying to put something this complex together … I know the league is doing the best it can and is very aware of it. But it’s going to pose some challenges, both good and bad.

ESPN: When you do get back to playing games, we’ve heard from players about the challenges of playing in empty arenas, and how hard it’s going to be to self-motivate. How will it be different for a coach? Have you thought about having to modulate your volume at all considering there’s not going to be any noise?

Cooper: Yeah, it most definitely will be different. When you play in arenas, your one time to talk to players is during stoppages in play. But since arenas are so loud and there’s so much going on, for the most part players can’t hear you anyway. That’s the honest truth. So you have to do a lot of coaching while the game’s going on because they’re not pumping noise and there’s no music going on. The one thing for me is that the microphones pick up a lot of things. I don’t know how much of that they’re going to tune out.

I don’t know how much of a change it’s going to be for the coaches, but you’re going to hear players that you’ve never heard speak on the ice. That’s going to be an eye-opener. Like when you think about the Golden Goal in the Vancouver Olympics, what does everybody remember? Sidney Crosby yelling “Iggy!” And [Jarome] Iginla heard him and got him the puck. You’re going to hear this all the time [in empty arenas]. Guys are constantly talking. And I think it’s going to be extremely entertaining.

Look, you can’t get over the fact that there’s no fans. They’re such a part of the game. Part of the excitement of the game is being crammed in with 20,000 passionate fans. But there might be opportunities for television to really get to know some of the players, how they play the game, how much they talk on the ice. Who knows? When we all get back to the new normal, some good will come from this and you’ll get to know some players better without the fans.

ESPN: I voted for Anthony Cirelli to win the Selke Trophy. Did I get it right?

Cooper: [Laughs] In my eyes you did. Probably everyone else in our dressing room, too.

You know, to be considered for any of those individual awards is a privilege. But I think the Selke is really one of the top awards. The players that win it are so well respected. But that award is also a “wait your turn” award. And I think that everybody that’s won it, they kind of waited in line for the next group of guys to win it, and then they get thrown into the conversation and they eventually win it.

I think for Anthony to have his name thrown in there is a huge compliment to him. He may not win it this year, but if he continues the trajectory of his career, he’ll be in the conversation for years to come.

ESPN: Finally, you guys participated in the All-In Challenge to help fight food insecurity for those in need. You had someone bid $46,000 to sign a professional tryout contract with the Lightning, and they will skate for you and with the players next preseason. Does $46,000 buy them a legitimate shot at making the roster?

Cooper: [Laughs] No, but it buys them a guaranteed shot at getting on the ice with the team.

Look, it was a little initiative and I think the cause is great. It was something our owner [Jeff Vinik] and our general manager [Julien BriseBois] wanted to do. We weren’t sure how much it was going to bring in, and it ended up bringing in $46,000. So we’re excited to see the new guy at camp. Hopefully we can pull a diamond out of the rough.

ESPN: Do you know who won the auction?

Cooper: I don’t.

ESPN: Are you at all worried that it’s a player you once cut, seeking vengeance?

Cooper: [Laughs] Struck it rich in another avenue, and now coming back for a second chance?

But in all seriousness, when people do these things, it’s a lot of money to come over and spend a day with the team. With all that’s gone on in the world, to see some good come out of this and people opening up their hearts and their wallets in these trying times, we look forward to meeting whoever’s coming in.



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