By Rich Palzewic
GREEN BAY – Little did I know it at the time, but 12 years ago, I became good friends with a future Stanley Cup champion head coach in Jon Cooper.
Cooper, who went to college to become a lawyer, was the head coach of the Green Bay Gamblers from 2008-10.
During that time, he led the Gamblers, members of the United States Hockey League, to a Clark Cup championship in 2010 and went a combined 84-27-9 during his two seasons at the helm.
Moving up the coaching ranks, Cooper was hired by the Tampa Bay Lightning to coach the Norfolk Admirals, the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.
During the 2011–12 season, the Admirals won the Calder Cup as AHL champion.
The Admirals also set the record for the longest, regular-season winning streak at 28 consecutive games.
Additionally, Cooper was named the AHL’s coach of the year.
The following season, Cooper became the head coach of the Syracuse Crunch after the Lightning changed their AHL affiliation.
In 65 games with the Crunch, Cooper led the team to a 39–18–8 record, the best in the AHL during that time.
Cooper was named the head coach of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning midway through the 2012-13 season and has gone 348-180-50 combined since then.
To top it off, he recently helped the Lightning win their second Stanley Cup, which was first awarded in 1893.
Cooper has been a winner every stop along the way, and I had the unique opportunity to get to know him as a person and friend during his Gamblers’ days.
At the time, I was a correspondent for another local publication.
One of my main duties was to cover nearly every home Gamblers game.
I first started covering games in 2007 under head coach Mark Mazzoleni.
Mazzoleni was a great guy, but the Gamblers didn’t see much success during his four seasons as coach.
Rarely did we talk about happy times, because the team didn’t win much.
Enter Cooper, who had just helped the St. Louis Bandits win the North American Hockey League championship.
Like most others, I hadn’t heard of him, but I quickly realized he was a winner.
My first game covering Cooper in Green Bay was Oct. 4, 2008, a 3-2 win over Waterloo.
Looking back on the game story I wrote, Cooper said, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some nerves before the game. You have to stay calm in front of the guys. I definitely wanted to get this one under way.”
Later in the article, Cooper added, “It was great to get a win, and hopefully, this is a sign of more good things to come and we’ll make the fans of Green Bay proud of this team.”
He made the community proud, that’s for sure.
We always had the same routine after every game.
With a few minutes remaining in the game, I’d leave my perch high above the Resch Center ice and head to the locker room area.
If the team lost, oftentimes, Cooper would be engaged in some animated talk with the referees leaving the ice before him and I would duck into a small room to chat.
If he was upset about a loss, I’d always ask, “Do you need a minute to calm down?”
He never once answered “yes” and was always professional.
Fortunately, most of our chats were fun
I’d estimate I chatted with Cooper 60 times in those two years.
One other particular game I covered stands out in my mind.
It was Friday, Jan. 22, 2010, the day my daughter Francesca was born.
I was scheduled to work a game that night, but my wife went into labor about a week early and was in the hospital.
Francesca was born early that morning, so my wife gave me her blessing to work the game later in the evening.
I don’t remember if the Gamblers won, but I recall Cooper being happy I was a new father.
By that time, I’d say we were good friends.
Later that season, Green Bay won the Clark Cup in a dramatic, deciding game at the Resch Center.
I wasn’t asked to cover that game (which I recall being upset about), but I witnessed the action from the stands with more than 8,000 other screaming fans.
Resch Center officials wanted to sell the arena out, so they offered $5 tickets.
It’s still one of the neatest things I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan.
When it was announced Cooper was moving on to Norfolk after the 2010 season ended, I sent congratulations to him via text message.
His response was, “Thanks, Rich … I’ll miss our after-game chats.”
I look back fondly on my days of covering Cooper and the Gamblers, and I couldn’t be happier he finally took home the Stanley Cup.