All roads do lead home.
The Islanders have home ice in Games 3 and 4, but Lightning head coach Jon Cooper feels pretty comfortable in Uniondale himself.
Cooper, a graduate of Hofstra University, played at Nassau Coliseum for the school’s club hockey team on Wednesday nights and frequently attended Islanders games to watch his friends.
“I went to a ton of Islanders games when some of my buddies were playing for them,” Cooper said prior to Game 3. “I used to sit up there in the upper deck and cheer for them. It was just a great atmosphere.”
Playing and watching hockey were not his only hobbies. Cooper recorded 74 goals and 25 assists in four seasons on the Hofstra lacrosse team (1986-89). He was one of the best players in school history, leading the 1988 and 1989 East Coast Conference champions and finishing his career fifth in goals and ninth in points.
Cooper took a leap of faith coming to Hofstra. The British Columbia native went to a high school of 300 students 3,000 miles away before arriving in New York as an incoming student in awe of his surroundings.
“I remember getting off the plane with my mom and when we saw the buildings, we were taken aback,” Cooper said.
But he matured fast. Cooper had the skill, swagger and smarts during his time on campus. He was a talented, multi-sport athlete, wore a backward San Francisco Giants cap to cover his flowing mullet and kept up his studies, too.
“The one thing you learn when you go away to school and you are 3,000 miles away from home, on your own, is survival,” Cooper said. “It was my coming out party, and I became a man.”
Former teammates have called Cooper an older brother, wise and kind beyond his years. When a player wasn’t from the area, Cooper took him out to lunch. Every day, he read the sports section to increase his knowledge of local teams. He was even a fantasy sports connoisseur years before the industry had wide appeal.
“He was a big part of my college experience. Everyone who knew him would say it is very easy to remember him,” Doug Edmonds, a teammate, friend and housemate, told The Post. “I was not from Long Island. He was always gracious making sure we were taken care of, whether it was with food and social outings. He is a solid person and a great teammate.”
Cooper graduated in 1989 with a business administration degree. After his time at Hofstra, he attended Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. While there, he met a judge, Thomas Brennan, who agreed to give him a job if Cooper coached Brennan’s son’s high school hockey team.
“It is an amazing story that I tell all my acquaintances,” Edmonds said. “He started from the bottom and morphed into a serious coach. To think that his name is on the Stanley Cup is really unbelievable. He lived for sports and loved hockey the most.”
That high school coaching experience sparked a fire in Cooper, and he continued to coach hockey, moving up to juniors. Eventually, he faced a monumental decision — he decided to quit law and pursue his NHL coaching dream. After various job changes, Cooper ended up coaching the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, first in Norfolk, then Syracuse, before he got the call from then-GM Steve Yzerman with an offer to coach the big league club.
The 53-year-old loves his trips to the Nassau Coliseum — he even said “it was a sad time” when the Islanders moved to Brooklyn — and makes sure to give back to the community.
“A few years ago, we all sat around the locker room and he stood in the middle and told us the Jon Cooper story,” said current Hofstra lacrosse coach Seth Tierney, a friend of Cooper’s. “His work ethic started at a young age. There is a certain focus on winning, not just winning a game, but winning in life. Everything he has touched has turned to gold.”