By Dory LeBlanc
Last March, Jon Cooper was arriving in Tampa Bay, ready to take over a team ripe with young players - most of whom he coached in the team's AHL affiliates, first Roanoke, then Syracuse - with two holdovers from the Stanley Cup team of 2004.
At the time, it seemed Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis would outlast everyone, no matter the age gap.
This March, both Lecavalier and St. Louis are gone, and in front of a roomful of reporters and cameramen, Cooper addressed the media gathered at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Wednesday, trying to express, as much as he could, what had transpired over the past 24 hours.
"Obviously this did not sneak up on us," Cooper said, "I guess this, I don't know, controversy or whatever you want to call it. So, you go about your daily business in preparing your hockey team, knowing that at some point - there's a chance this might happen. But until the trigger's actually pulled, you just don't believe it's going to happen.
"I think there were times - I guess until noon or whatever it was, you don't believe it's going to happen, until it does, it's like weird emotions go through you that tomorrow morning when we walk in pre-game skate, No. 26 is not going be sitting to my left in the fourth stall.
"That's a tough loss, not only for our team, but for what he's done for this organization."
Cooper acknowledged that although the Bolts locker room is filled with leaders, the internal conflict brewing with its captain was taking somewhat of a toll on the team, eluding to the fact St. Louis was left off the initial Canadian roster for the Sochi Olympics by Lightning General Manager and then-Executive Director of Team Canada Steve Yzerman.
"Anyone will tell you the locker room is a tight-knit group and we have a really good group pf players in there," Cooper said, "But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that we had - whatever you want to call it, distraction, whether there's animosity, what have you, what happened in early January and there was - I can't say whether it was a positive or negative distraction; it was a distraction."
The Lightning head coach went on to call St. Louis a "consummate professional" who came to work everyday and gave the team his all over the past six weeks. Cooper also said that a new era begins in Tampa Bay Thursday night, with the addition of Ryan Callahan, the player acquired by the Lightning in the trade.
In the end, it doesn't seem St. Louis' heart was part of that "all," after reportedly making a strong plea this morning to Tampa Bay to try and get a deal done with New York.
Now it's up to Yzerman and Cooper to create their own legacies in Tampa Bay, and with all remnants of the Stanley Cup team now a memory, their own run for the Cup is a good start.
To hear Jon Cooper's press conference in its entirety, click the player below:
Photo: Getty Images