In the summer of 1999, Tom Brennan was at a sizable disadvantage when he started looking for a coach for his son's varsity hockey team at Lansing Catholic High School in Michigan. The position paid little and the program had not been competitive in 25 years.
Brennan, a judge in the 55th District Court in nearby Mason, Mich., could find only one qualified candidate: a lawyer fresh out of law school who had recently established his own one-man practice. Almost 16 years later, that coach, Jon Cooper, is leading the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup finals.
But 16 years ago Cooper was just a ringer on the Legal Eagles, a local recreational team made up of area lawyers.
"The guys loved him and he was the best player on the team, a natural leader with a great sense of humor," said Brennan, 63, who left the bench in 2004. "I think his goal was to get into a sports agency. He was trying to connect with the hockey scene. He was practicing law and trying to make a living. So I wanted to help him."
Before he found Cooper the coaching job, Brennan paid him $1,000 a month to represent indigent misdemeanor defendants in his courtroom. It was not long before Brennan identified the skill set that would eventually serve Cooper well behind a different bench.
"He had fantastic client control; he had every client in his hands," Brennan said. "And he could negotiate. He could get whatever he needed to get from the prosecutor. I could tell the guy was destined to be a great lawyer."
Barely two years out of law school, Cooper was no longer representing indigent defendants when Brennan offered him $1,500 to take over the Lansing Catholic varsity. The school of about 400 students had won consecutive state hockey titles in 1975 and 1976 before fading into hockey irrelevance.
Cooper had no previous coaching experience, but he made an early impression on Brennan, who served as the team's manager.
"We didn't have a great team," said Robert Hillman, the team captain that season. "There were probably four or five of us who had played at a reasonable level. There were a couple of guys on the team who had barely skated before."
Cooper immediately endeared himself to his players, who quickly found ways to grind out a succession of victories. The turning point came in a closely contested matchup against Detroit Country Day School, an athletic powerhouse known for grooming NBA players like Chris Webber, Shane Battier and JaVale McGee.
"It didn't matter if you were the star or the guy warming the bench," said Hillman, who is completing his internal medicine residency in East Lansing. "Everyone had a role. He was really good at explaining that and valuing it so nobody felt that they were just a hanger-on."
The team, despite a paper-thin roster and marginal funding, eventually beat Mattawan High in overtime to capture the school's first regional title in 25 years. Cooper, at age 32, was named Coach of the Year by The Lansing State Journal.
Lansing Catholic was the first in a succession of coaching stops over the next few years. It was not until former NHL player Kelly Chase hired him to coach the Texarkana Bandits of the North American Hockey League that Cooper abandoned law for good.
The Lightning hired Cooper to coach its their American Hockey League affiliate in 2010. The next season, his Norfolk Admirals won the Calder Cup as AHL champions. The year after that, Cooper was the Lightning's coach, the culmination of a dream that began 13 years earlier with a ragtag group of youngsters.