Hockey World: Current Tampa Bay Lightning coach talked to Edmonton Oilers about job last year
Lawyer-turned-hockey coach Jon Cooper took the stand and couldn’t lie.
Yes, he did talk to the Edmonton Oilers about replacing Tom Renney as the team’s coach in 2012, but he didn’t get grilled by then-GM Steve Tambellini.
“Craig (MacTavish) and I brushed paths,” the current Tampa Bay Lightning head man said.
So it wasn’t a formal interview?
“Uh, where’s MacT when I need him?” Cooper said with a laugh. “We spoke on a couple of occasions. There was different management at that time.”
Yes, MacTavish was in the Oilers’ hockey operations department then, but he’d coached against Cooper in the American Hockey League when MacTavish ran the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate Chicago Wolves for a year.
They talked during the Calder Cup, the AHL championship series which Cooper’s Norfolk Admirals team won that year, and before the NHL draft.
Ralph Krueger, Renney’s right-hand man, was eventually promoted, but Cooper was certainly on the Oilers’ radar.
“What I’m thankful for is I got to meet MacT, got to spend time with him,” Cooper said. “I was fired up when he got the general manager’s job. He was a class guy. I remember thinking ‘at some point in my career, I’d like to work for him.”
He didn’t get the Oilers job, went back to the minors — this time in Syracuse after Tampa’s farm team moved from Norfolk — and GM Steve Yzerman brought him up last March to replace Guy Boucher.
Boucher is still being paid for year four of his deal and has not hooked on to any coaching gig. There was talk he might go to Europe.
Cooper says he wasn’t bummed out when he didn’t get the Oilers job.
“Deserved or not, there are coaches who have success, and all of a sudden, they become a hot commodity,” he said.
“People build your name up, and there were a couple of teams that opened their doors to me (Edmonton and Washington) but I didn’t get the jobs. It was the best thing for my career. I’d only spent two years in the American League and didn’t feel I was ready for the NHL.
“But the other guy on my shoulder was saying ‘you’ve got to get one of these jobs because you might not stay hot for very long. As it turned out, our farm team moved and we had a great year and my name stayed on people’s breath.”
Cooper was working as a young lawyer when he got the hockey bug with a judge asking if he’d coach his boy’s high-school team. He was representing people down on their luck, almost pro bono, making $1,000 a month. He got the bug and coached midget, junior B, you name it.
So if that judge hadn’t asked him to coach, would the lawyer have become a hockey agent like Brian Burke?
“There’s some truth to that, I sniffed around to see about being an agent but it’s in my DNA to be on this side of the fence,” he said.
Cooper went to the hockey factory at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., when he was 15, a scared kid from Prince George, B.C.
“First time I’d ever been cut, in any sport, when I went there and didn’t make one of their teams, but it turned out to be an unreal experience,” said Cooper. “I remember my parents saying they bawled their eyes out for, like, 200 miles leaving me there, though.”
He wasn’t a blue-chipper.
“Good mind for the game, not a very good skater,” he said.
But he made the NHL anyway. And he’s taking it all in.
When the Oilers were in Tampa last week, he poked his head into the media room before the Oilers game Thursday to ask how the food was.
“How does it stack up around the league? Who’s got the best?” said Cooper, like he was scouting the opposition salad bar.
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Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, right, talked to now-Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, then a part of the team’s hockey operations department, about replacing Tom Renney as the Oilers’ bench-boss in 2012.
Photograph by: Scott Audette, Scott Audette/Getty Images