By Greg Bates
ASHWAUBENON – When Derek Lalonde joined Jon Cooper on the Tampa Bay Lightning coaching staff, he said he knew something special was brewing.
Now, three years later, the two former Green Bay Gamblers head coaches are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions: Lalonde as an assistant coach and Cooper as the head coach.
The Lightning capped off their magical run for another title July 8 by beating the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
Lalonde coached the Gamblers for three seasons (2011-14) before making a couple of stops and landing with the Lightning in July 2018.
“The first one you win is special,” Lalonde said. “It’s like a lifetime dream, almost surreal. It’s similar to the narrative we talked about with our team all year, to win one – not that lots of people win one – but to win two and then to do it back-to-back, it puts yourself in another category. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet, but it feels special for sure.”
When he was leading the Gamblers, Lalonde said he never thought he’d eventually be part of two Stanley Cup championships.
However, he’s come a long way to reach that status.
“Cooper was the same way, and we talk so much,” Lalonde said. “I’ve learned some of this from Jon in that I was never coaching to get to the next level – I was never coaching to get to the top – it was always about being good at the job you were in, living in the present. I went to Green Bay – it was a special job. I could have been there 20 years.”
Lalonde and Cooper first crossed paths when Lalonde was coaching at Ferris State University and Cooper coaching juniors in Detroit around 2002.
The two built a relationship over the next few years.
Cooper took the Gamblers’ head coaching job and spent two years (2008-10) there, winning a Clark Cup championship during a record-setting second season.
Two years later, Lalonde took the Gamblers’ gig.
He won a Clark Cup title in his first season, winning a franchise-record 47 games.
“I remind him all the time I broke all of his records in that first year,” Lalonde joked.
When Lalonde left Green Bay in 2014 after amassing a record of 114-56-8-6, he coached the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL and the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League (AHL).
Cooper called up his old friend in 2018 and offered him an assistant coaching job.
Lalonde graciously accepted.
Lalonde said to win two Stanley Cups is more special doing it with “Coop.”
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “Having a relationship with Jon, him calling me up and asking me to come on board and talking, ‘Hey, you’re the missing piece.’ We’re similar with our approach in the room. We’re culture over structure. What’s expected is – and, again, part of Jon being special – he manages well and makes everyone feel important.”
Even though Lalonde is seven years removed from coaching the Gamblers, he still keeps close tabs on the franchise.
That’s in large part because of current Gamblers head coach/general manager Pat Mikesch, who was the associate head coach/director of player personnel for all three years that Lalonde coached.
The two talk regularly.
“We bounce things off each other and are close,” Lalonde said. “The championships we were able to win in Green Bay, we did that together. I know Pat had come from being an assistant at Michigan Tech. I almost had to beg him and sell him on coming to Green Bay at the time. He trusted me. When I moved on, it was the perfect transition for him to become the head coach there.”
Lalonde also keeps in touch with the Gamblers’ front office staff, namely PMI Entertainment Group President Brendan Bruss and Gamblers President Jeff Mitchell.
Lalonde said he enjoyed working with the Gamblers’ brass, which he said did things the right way.
“That moment on, I told myself, ‘I’ll never go to a dysfunctional organization or an organization that’s not the top,’” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to land in some good situations after that.”
Ideal situations at that, culminating in the Lightning position.
Now that Lalonde has won a couple of NHL titles as an assistant coach, the next logical step for him is to become an NHL head coach.
It’s a job Lalonde said he would “absolutely go after.”
“When you have success, it’s natural for people to look at organizations that have success,” he said. “I think all three of us as assistant coaches may be looked upon in the future. If that time comes, great. If not, I’ll stick to what I’ve always done and that’s being great at the job I’m at – that’s Tampa Bay right now. All of us coaches have one year left on our contract, and we’re going to honor that and be the best we can here. Because I’ve always taken that approach and it’s always been a growth mindset in everything I’ve done, that next level has always called. The unbelievable thing is, I’m running out of levels.”