Luke DeCock

Duke lacrosse coach has hockey protege in Stanley Cup contender

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper addresses the media during a press conference after their morning skate at the United Center Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Chicago.
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper addresses the media during a press conference after their morning skate at the United Center Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Chicago. The Tampa Bay Times via AP

If Jon Cooper had decided to become a lacrosse coach, John Danowski would have hired him. In a heartbeat. If things had turned out that way, Cooper might have become his biggest competition. Instead, Cooper is two wins away from winning a championship in a completely different sport, at a completely different level.

Before coming to Duke, where he has won three national titles in the past six years, Danowski spent 21 years at Hofstra, on Long Island. Cooper was on his first team there, recruited by his predecessor, a gangly freshman from British Columbia who had played only hockey and indoor (box) lacrosse at a prep school in Saskatchewan. Almost 30 years later, Cooper will be behind the Tampa Bay Lightning bench Saturday for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, with the series tied 2-2.

From college lacrosse player to Wall Street to public defender to hockey coach, working his way up from the lowest level of coaching to the very highest, Cooper’s improbable rise has captivated a national audience. It’s a story Danowski knows better than anyone, having watched it from the start.

“Not everyone’s willing to start at the bottom,” Danowski said Thursday. “I don’t think he thought when he started he was going to end up in the NHL. He did it because he loved it.”

Danowski’s relationship with Cooper provides a tenuous Triangle link to what is generally acknowledged to be one of the most dramatic Stanley Cup Final series in years. Lightning forward J.T. Brown, the son of N.C. State’s record-setting running back Ted Brown, offers a more concrete one.

But as Cooper’s story enters the national consciousness, Danowski has an unusual perspective on it. And he’s enjoyed watching it happen. He watches the games, then stays up to watch Cooper’s news conferences. (Earlier this season, he watched Cooper’s Lightning play at the New York Islanders and sat across from the visiting bench, watching Cooper instead of the game.)

The night before one of the Lightning’s games at the Carolina Hurricanes this season, Danowski and Cooper and his staff talked for hours at the team hotel, coach and player in one sport having become colleagues in two different sports.

“It’s been really, really fun,” Danowski said. “His story is so unique. But it also tells you something I tell my students all the time: You can have degrees or you can have experience or do things for different reasons, but the bottom line is to try to be happy. I think when I see Jon, see him behind the bench, see him at press conferences, he’s happy. That’s what’s important. I think that shows. His players play like that.”

Cooper played one season of club hockey at Hofstra in addition to four years of varsity lacrosse for Danowski, and he even managed to sneak into a few Islanders games at nearby Nassau Coliseum, at the end of the Islanders’ dynasty.

“I remember being able to go down there,” Cooper said after the Lightning clinched the Eastern Conference title. “I just loved being a part of it. I don’t know if that fueled anything in me today. I never really thought about that, but you ask the question now, and I just remember that feeling of being there. I never, obviously, ever thought that I’d be standing here answering that question. But maybe there is a little piece that drove me from my days there.”

Cooper started out at the bottom, coaching a high-school team in Michigan, choosing hockey over a career in law. He rose through the U.S. junior hockey ranks before jumping to the American Hockey League, winning championships at each spot along the way before the Lightning hired him in March 2013.

Now he’s on the verge of another title, the biggest in his sport. Danowski never saw Cooper going into coaching, but he’s not surprised by his success. Under different circumstances, he might be Danowski’s biggest rival in the lacrosse world.

“I would have hired him, probably, early on, if he gave me any indication,” Danowski said. “He would have been a great recruiter. Magnetic personality. Someone people are attracted to. He would have been great to work with – plus a lot of fun.”

But maybe not as much fun as Danowski is having watching what Cooper is doing now.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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