Throughout the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will periodically talk to Lightning players or coaches to get their first-hand account of a critical moment from the season or just what’s on their mind currently. Today, we hear from Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper, who, on Tuesday (as long as Tropical Storm Michael cooperates), will captain the third installment of his annual Coop’s Catch for Kids charity fishing tournament benefitting pediatric cancer research and patient services. In two years, the tournament has raised over $200,000 for the fight against pediatric cancer, and Cooper hopes this year’s can generate another $150,000.
As told to tampabaylightning.com beat writer Bryan Burns, Cooper discusses the genesis of the fishing tournament, what he looks forward to most when he’s angling on the water (hint: it’s not catching fish) and how he’d like to see the tournament evolve as it continues to grow each year.
“When you’re part of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the position I’m in, I feel like it’s a duty to give back to the community. You have a little bit of a voice. Plus, the sense of commitment by Jeff and Penny Vinik, it inspires you to do more. You don’t know how long your tenure is going to be with the organization, but while you’re here you try to make an impact in a positive way in the community that has given so much to me. Everything came together for Coop’s Catch at the Sneaker Soiree back in 2014. That’s when I met Tony Colton and just going to that event coupled with going to Dick Vitale’s Jimmy V Foundation event, I hit those two events back to back in a short time and it struck a chord with me. When I met Tony at the Sneaker Soiree, he and another boy went up to the podium to tell their stories and then they told everybody in the crowd how they’d beaten cancer and were in remission. And it turns out when I met Tony and I talked to him afterwards, he wasn’t in remission. That was the type of kid he is. He wanted it to be more of a feel-good story for everybody in the crowd, didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him when in fact he was actually still sick. He was such an inspiring kid. Tony was probably the one child I really got attached to, and, the fact that he’s no longer with us, there won’t be an event that goes by that we don’t think of him and wonder what if. What if we had started earlier? Could we have helped him some more? But I know he was proud of the event, he was proud to come to the event and his legacy will always live on with us. So you know that saying ‘when you see the light?’ Well I saw the light when I met Tony. Because the one thing about cancer and what really kicked in for me was the year before I started Coop’s Catch my father-in-law passed away of cancer. And so then the thought came to me and through my wife Jessie was, ‘Okay, we may not be able to save the adults that have lived life, that have had that opportunity to live, but what about the kids that have not had an opportunity to live? And can we help their life, put them in a situation to enjoy the things we’ve been able to enjoy our whole lives?’ It’s an awful disease. It’s a disease that everybody’s affected by. Somewhere along the lines, someone in your family tree has been affected by cancer. We thought there was nothing better than to start with the kids and for any way possible try to give them the ray of hope and an experience and put them in a situation where they can experience life just like every other healthy kid.
Coop’s Catch for Kids:
This is how Coop’s Catch kind of came together. I was actually out fishing with Captain Mike and a couple of our staff members and we were talking, just throwing banter around of what was going to be the best way in this community to raise money. Golf tournaments and events like that were being thrown around, but I wanted to do something that would be somewhat different, something we could get our players involved with, something that maybe hadn’t been done as often before but kind of fit with all of the advantages of living in Tampa. And we’re sitting out in the water and we’re like, ‘Well, why don’t we do this?’ And John Tortorella who everybody well knows has won a Stanley Cup here and is not only a great coach but a fabulous human being, he had done something similar to this years earlier. And the banter continued and all of a sudden it went from fishing tournament to Coop’s Catch. It was just a day of ideas. When we started to get this off the ground, I asked Torts if he would record a video for us for our inaugural event, and he was more than happy to do it. He’s been part of the inspiration of why this started and he couldn’t have been happier that we were going to kind of carry on with something he had been a part of before.
The favorite part of the fishing tournament for me — because I’m always the last boat to go out and make sure everything’s gone off without a hitch – is when the boats are out on the water and I can tell everybody’s having a good time. It’s more a sense of relief for me. I want to make sure it’s a great experience. People are donating their time. People are donating a lot of money and putting it towards this cause. I want to make sure they leave that experience, yes, with the ultimate reward that they’re giving back, but they’re happy to give back and that they had fun that day and they got to learn a little bit about why they’re donating. There’s always that relief part that everybody’s happy. When it finishes at the end of the day and you can see the smile on everybody’s face, even if the fishing was poor or they didn’t catch fish, it was the experience they had whether it would be with our players or our staff or how they were treated. It always gives me kind of that warm feeling inside when people open up their wallets to give to pediatric cancer, they were really happy to do so and this was an event that helped them do that.
So, if that’s what makes me the happiest about the tournament, the one thing that doesn’t make me as happy is I never catch fish. We’ve had a couple tough weather days. You’re kind of a product of how the weather’s going to be, but everybody else is catching fish and I’m not. The fun thing about this is usually we’ll have a couple camera crews out there with us. Fox Sports did a TV segment on it, and usually there’s a camera following. And we have to make it look like I caught fish, but I never have. So this year I’m bucking the trend. I’m determined. I’m going to have my game face on. I’m changing up my hat, the clothes I wear. This is definitely game on. I always say I’m being a team player by leaving all the fish in the ocean so everybody else can catch them.
We have raised over $200,000 between the two previous Coop’s Catches we’ve had, and we’re hoping this year that we can raise $150,000. I’m really confident we can do so. The great thing would be if somehow we could expand the tournament. One of the special moments of this tournament is how appreciative I am of our players that take part in this. They volunteer their time. They go out on the boats with fans. I think that’s part of, if you expand it, you might lose that experience. I want the people that are involved in this and donate their time and money to be able to have an unbelievable experience. If you get to spend a couple hours on a boat with either Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman or Ryan Callahan or Andrei Vasilevskiy, how awesome is that? But it takes the commitment from the players. What’s great about this organization is everybody’s all in. Eventually, because of timing, I would love to get some Rays players involved and some Bucs players but it’s hard because the Bucs are in season. Sometimes the Rays, depending when we have the tournament, they’re still playing. It’s difficult in that sense but the ultimate goal is in the end are we going to help kids with pediatric cancer? And so far we have. And to be able to raise the money we have in such a short amount of time with the help of the V Foundation and Dick Vitale, who’s been a superstar during this whole event, it just makes it unique and I think that’s why people keep coming back is because the experiences they have and how genuine our guys are during the whole event.”
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