By Roger Wistar
For John Cooper, a career spanning nearly 50 seasons of varsity sports is not about an accumulation of wins and losses, but rather a collection of shared moments with the players that he has coached.
“Don’t overcoach. Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s about the kids,” says Cooper, recalling a lesson he learned from longtime St. Lawrence University women’s hockey coach Bernie McKinnon.
Cooper developed a close relationship with McKinnon, both as a student assistant coach at his alma mater, and later as son-in-law when he married McKinnon’s daughter, fellow Hotchkiss faculty member Christy Cooper.
Now retiring from Hotchkiss after 35 years, Cooper has left a legacy of inspiring boys and girls on the lacrosse field and ice hockey rink. Players and coaches who worked with and played for Cooper share countless stories of his ability to inspire them to achieve their highest potential.
“I can’t even begin to count the ways Coops has made me a better person,” says Kelsie Fralick ’11, who played in the net for four years on varsity ice hockey. “He taught me to take what I do seriously but not take myself too seriously – to be happy no matter the circumstances.”
Fralick added that Cooper helped her learn to be humble by not playing her right away as a prep. “I was frustrated then because I knew I could help the team. Looking back on that now, he was teaching me humility and patience,” she says. “Regardless of whether or not I was the better goalie, everyone has to earn their time.”
The lessons that Cooper has imparted to his players during their time at Hotchkiss have carried on after they graduate. Fralick noted that when she arrived at Connecticut College, she faced similar challenges earning ice time as a freshman, and her experience as a Bearcat taught her how to handle the situation.
Part of the secret to Cooper’s success is his ability to be sincerely present with his players at all times, says former Hotchkiss faculty member Nat White, who coached with Cooper for six years. “Players appreciate the fact that he’s genuine. Every interaction, he brings himself in and you know that it’s John Cooper the person who is setting the tone,” said White.
Keira Goin ’13, who played varsity hockey all three years at Hotchkiss, recalls just such a moment. “It took just one conversation with John Cooper for me to know I wanted to play hockey for him,” she said. “We sat overlooking the pool, and he spoke to me like a peer, not a prospective lower mid.”
Later, Goin realized that it had not just been a sales pitch. “I felt special, but once at Hotchkiss, I realized that what was special about that night was not me – it was Mr. Cooper. He treats everyone he encounters with the same respect and youthful curiosity, and makes each person feel as important as if they were his own daughters.”
Cooper began coaching ice hockey immediately after joining the faculty in 1988 – first working as an assistant with his wife, Christy, for seven years, then assisting Robin Chandler from 1996-2000, and finally leading the program from 2001-2018.
Along the way, he accumulated an arsenal of memorable coaching moments, often in the form of a “Coops Quote,” the name given by his players to the quirky but always instructive aphorisms that Cooper would use to impart lessons about not just hockey, but also life.
One that multiple players mentioned was, “Pressure is a privilege,” which Grace Jennings ’15 explained connected Cooper’s ability to have high expectations but be supportive as well. “He would put new players in high-stakes situations and whether they struggled or mastered the situation, he would always repeat that,” she says. “It taught all of his players that failing in one moment did not make you a failure. It meant you were actually trying to do something worthwhile.”
And sometimes a Coops Quote is simply delivered to settle down the team, as Kaylen van Wagner ’13 recalled. At the annual PKO tournament in 2012, Cooper described van Wagner’s teammate, Ianthe Lekometros ’12, a tall player, as “an oak tree ripping through a forest of shrubs” en route to scoring a goal.
“The entire locker room looked confused at first, but then burst out in laughter,” says van Wagner. “When he saw the team getting down on itself, he always picked us up and reminded us that we are playing the game we love while being surrounded by our best friends.”
Cooper is quick to credit all of the other coaches he has worked with, including longtime boys varsity lacrosse coach Chris Burchfield, with showing him how to properly instill confidence in players in the moment. “Robin and Chris are masters of that craft – when the kids cross the line or leave the bench, they own those decisions,” said Cooper.
Burchfield forged a bond with Cooper on the lacrosse field for more than 20 years, and noted that he brought many of the same qualities to the boys he coached there as well.
“Coops teaches and coaches with a contagious joy. No matter my mood or the mood of his players and students, Coops has a way of making everyone feel better,” says Burchfield. “He works from a position of goodness, always granting the other the benefit of his trust and belief in them.”
And the lacrosse field was the scene for a fair share of Coops Quotes as well. Burchfield recalled Cooper telling the team on the penalty kill to “play as an isosceles triangle,” tapping into his career as a math teacher.
Part of Cooper’s ability to approach his teams with grace, according to his players, is his ability to keep sports in perspective. “Being a good hockey player was important to Coach Cooper, of course, but being a person of good character was more important to him, and we all knew that,” says Chelsea Ziadie ’14.
Another of his hockey players, Stephanie O’Brien ’18, agrees. “Not a day went by that Coops didn’t mention some one-liner about working hard or appreciating life,” she says. “Coops constantly reminded us about the importance of doing your best on and off the ice.”
Throughout his coaching and teaching career, Cooper was able to find the right tone and achieve a perfect level of balance, said Burchfield.
“John has taught me how to find the best in others, how to let the little things slide, how to build healthy relationships with students and players, and how to love a family, both his own and his Hotchkiss family,” he says. “He is a beautiful man.”
John Cooper by the Numbers
30+ years coaching hockey
600+ hockey players
25 years coaching lacrosse
750 lax players
Multiple trips to Florida with the boys lacrosse team for spring training.
30 PKO hockey tournaments at Taft
Uncountable Subway sandwich stops on the way home from road trips!
2001 14-4-2, Founders League Champions, New England Tournament Finalists
2003 13-6-2 Founders League Champions
2007 15-5-4 Founders League Champions
2008 21-4-1 PKO Champions, New England Tournament Finalists