Last week, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was interviewed by Darren Dreger on Dreger Café, a recurring segment about the IIHF World Championships. In the interview, Cooper discusses his experience with Hockey Canada, his strong relationship with USA Hockey, and the unique insight that comes with coaching some of Canada's best players.
Full video of the interview can be found at TSN.
Quick Note: For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases, “and,” “so,” “but,” “you know,” and “I mean.”
Darren Dreger: All right, Jon. I should apologize. The Dreger Cafe in Paris, France should be a little more spectacular than what this might be. We promised the Eiffel Tower, but instead we’re in a restaurant.
Jon Cooper: Well for sure it should have wine instead of tea.
Dreger: We can arrange that, if you prefer. [Cooper laughs] Talk about the opportunity for you here. Coaching Canada’s national team is a very, very big deal. What does it mean to you as a coach to be welcomed into a pretty exclusive club?
Cooper: Wow. I’m not sure words can describe the feeling of when I got the call from [Team Canada General Manager] Ron Hextall. It’s humbling, to be honest.
You think about all the Canadian events, the hockey history I’ve witnessed through the years. Everything from the ‘87 Canada Cup to the ‘91 to the Olympics to the golden goal. To sit here and think, I can be a small part of that history. I was taken aback. I obviously jumped at the opportunity.
Dreger: Now we’ve asked you this in the past, whether you consider yourself Canadian or American when it comes to international hockey. I don’t recall you giving a definitive answer. Is it abundantly obvious now that you’re on Team Canada’s bench, that you’ve selected?
[For context: Jon Cooper is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. His father is Canadian. His mother is American.]
Cooper: [laughs] The lawyer in me - right down the middle. I’ve done a lot of my coaching in the United States. It’s been a phenomenal process for me. I would not be in the situation I am today without the help of USA Hockey.
Ultimately it comes down to where I was born and raised. Prince George [British Columbia, Canada] is my home. My parents still have the same house we grew up in today, it’s still there. That’s where hockey was inbred to me. To have an opportunity to represent Canada, I couldn’t pass that up.
Dreger: If the call had come from Team USA prior to [the call to coach Team Canada] - was that even something you would have considered?
Cooper: It didn’t though, so...
Dreger: It didn’t. I know it didn’t.
Cooper: No, no, no. Like I said, USA Hockey has been phenomenal to me from Jimmy Johannson [Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations for USA Hockey] all the way down. Those guys are first class. I sit here and - Brian Burke has become a close friend. When I need to lean on advice and stuff like that, Brian Burke is there to be an open ear.
But ultimately, it’s the chance to represent the country I was born and raised in, and to be a part of Canada. I guess the bottom line is if I ever walked into my house and looked at my dad and said I was going to coach the U.S., I don’t think he would’ve been too happy with me.
Dreger: Your mom would have been okay with it.
Cooper: She might’ve been, but she has lived in Canada for the last 50 years. [Cooper looks at camera] Sorry mom, 29. [Dreger laughs]
Dreger: It’s also kind of neat, I presume, to be able to coach - You coach elite players in the National Hockey League, but to be around different athletes. Get to know the different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and all of those things.
Cooper: That’s the great part of this whole tournament. Yes, we’ve got Brayden Point and Alex Killorn on our team. But you compete against these [other] guys on a daily basis. To see the personalities - somebody you’re watching from afar thinking, “Not sure if I like that guy too much.” Then you walk into the locker room and you’re like, “Wow, is this guy an unbelievable teammate. There’s a reason he’s on Team Canada, because that’s the way he is.” It’s just awesome to be a part of that.
For all these guys to come together for one common goal, to win a gold medal and keep Canada on top of hockey in the world. It’s what everybody’s here for. Ultimately, we compete against each other on a daily basis at home, but here we’re competing for one cause and it’s a lot of fun.
Dreger: Truth be told, you’d rather be competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every coach, every player here would prefer to be [doing] that, even though they love representing their country. Is this a decent consolation prize though for you, for missing the playoffs for the first time?
Cooper: I’d never call this a consolation prize. Ultimately, does it ease the sting? It does. Our job is - I’m employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and my job as a head coach is to get our team in the playoffs every year and vie for a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, it’s a tough league.
As you can see, all you have to do is get into the tournament and anything can happen. You look at Nashville-Chicago, that’s a one and an eight seed, but it really wasn’t that way when you pare everybody down. We’ve been in these situations before.
We ended up with 94 points [just like Nashville]. Last year that gets us in, this year it doesn’t. Can you judge success and failure on that? I’m not so sure, but it is extremely disappointing not to get in.
If there was the one year that this was going to happen, having the World Championships in Paris [France] and Cologne [Germany] is a pretty awesome way to be able to coach into late May.
Dreger: Yeah, no question about that. When you look at the Team Canada that you have here today in Paris, it’s going to change in a short period of time because the World Championship tournament is a relatively short tournament. What do you expect Team Canada to look like by the time the medal rounds start?
Cooper: Well, we’re going to need to look a little bit better than we have at the beginning. It’s a challenge. The players that have gone through a grind, not only the regular season. A lot of these guys played in the World Cup; they’ve been playing since the very first week of September.
It’s pulling 22, 23, 24 different players and molding them into one in a two-week span. You’ve got to get everyone on the same page, but more importantly you’ve got to get everybody into shape because a lot of guys have not played games. I talked to [Marc-Édouard] Vlasic when he got here, the last time he was on the ice was his last playoff game.
These guys are volunteering their time to come out here and represent their country. You have to respect that. At the same time, you’ve got to mold these guys into a team that’s going to win a gold medal. That’s what we’re here for. That’s the challenge but I’ll tell ya, it’s a fun one to be a part of.
Dreger: Is that ultimately going to be the defining trait? How this group comes together as a team? Last year is a tough comparison with the great NHL players that represented the country and won gold. This is a good team, it’s a young team. It should be quick. The goaltending looks pretty solid. But it’s whether or not they find a way to mesh that could be the key ingredient?
Cooper: I think so. To be honest, I think Ron Hextall’s done a great job putting this team together. We’ve got kind of a combination of the grit, the speed, the youth, the veterans. I like our group. It’s just a matter of - you’ve got to find that cohesion.
To sit here and have three practices, an exhibition game, and say everything’s going to be rolling perfectly - it’s tough to do. Couple that with the fact that everybody’s trying to knock you off.
You’ve got to bring it every single night. But I think what makes this country so great is that’s the mindset of these players. It’s a climb. You don’t want to peak on day one. You want to peak at the end. That’s our goal.
Dreger: Have you enjoyed the atmosphere thus far? I mean, it’s unique - away from the rink, you’re surrounded by a strong military presence for obvious reasons. I’m sure you and the team are thankful for that. In the game versus the Czech Republic, [it was] a relatively small crowd but still very boisterous, living in the moment, and enjoying it.
Cooper: [chuckles] We’re definitely not playing in Canada. That’s for sure. For me, it’s just a unique experience. It’s a little akin to a soccer game, in a sense. Everybody’s got the scarves, the flags. There’s the whistles, the chants, the singing. To be a part of that, it’s so much fun. It’s unique.
But in saying that, the Canadian flags are pocketed out there. I think as this tournament goes on, you’re going to see more of that. I think just how cordial and friendly everybody has been - and how welcoming.
I guess the best part too is when you see the kids and they look up at these players, especially the NHL players, you just see how wide their eyes get and the smile on their face. All the guys are so gracious. That’s what makes it great to be a part of this tournament.
Dreger: The weather prevented us from taking you to to the Eiffel Tower. Again, we apologize for that. What’s number one on your list of things to experience while you’re here in Paris?
Cooper: Well I just crossed it off - the Dreger Cafe was it. So I’m not sure. Everything’s downhill from here.
Dreger: Nice of you to say that. [Cooper chuckles] It didn’t cost me much to get you to say that.
Cooper: I’m serious. [both laugh] No, there’s so much to see in this city. For sure, you’ve got to swing by the Eiffel Tower, you’ve got to get by the Louvre [Museum] at some point, and then you have to test out some of the establishments here and see if the French wine is really what it’s cracked up to be.
Dreger: I’ve heard it’s okay.
Cooper: Yeah, well you go there with a group and you let them test. Then they just give you the... [Cooper chuckles]
Dreger: We’re professionals, right Jon? Thanks for doing this.
Cooper: My pleasure.