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How Virginia basketball inspired the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup title

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper used the Cavaliers as motivation, saying, “They did it, why can’t we?”

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

You might not think that the University of Virginia men’s basketball team and a professional hockey team from Florida have very much in common, but you’d be surprised. Last night, just one year after an embarrassing defeat in the first round of the postseason in 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup. Some 530 days after being stunned by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning secured a 2-0 victory over the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the culmination of the truncated 2020 bubble season.

The Lightning were the heavy favorites in 2019 before the Blue Jackets pulled off their shocking four-game sweep.

Sounds familiar, right? Ok, well maybe minus the four-game sweep part.

Virginia became the first ever No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament, falling to a hot-shooting UMBC team in 2018. A little over one year later, the Cavaliers used a dramatic run in 2019 to win their first ever National Championship in basketball.

“I had something down here about Virginia, and I was going to ask you, but I thought, ‘Hell, I don’t know how much you know about college basketball,’” ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt said to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper amid the Stanley Cup celebration. “I see you walking into the shot, and you’re wearing their hat.”

Cooper tilted his head down, showing off a Virginia National Championship hat.

That’s a good looking hat, Coach.

Tampa Bay’s astonishing departure from the post season in 2019 came just eight days after the Cavaliers won the NCAA Championship in Minneapolis with an 85-77 overtime victory over Texas Tech. There was no previous connection between Cooper — a dual citizen of both the US and Canada — and the Cavaliers, but the story of redemption spoke to him.

“I acquired the hat right after we lost,” Cooper told Van Pelt. “I don’t know Virginia, I don’t know Tony Bennett, but they’ve been something to hang hope on this whole time.”

For a team that has just three Americans on a roster of 15, the comparison to the NCAA tournament still held a lot a weight. Nikita Kucherov, the lone Russian on the team, made sure his coach had his lucky accessory with him postgame.

“This hat’s been with me the whole time. It was funny because Nikita Kucherov said to me, he goes, ‘Coop, where’s that hat?’ and he doesn’t know college basketball from anything,” Cooper said as he broke into laughter. “I said, ‘I’ve got that hat here, I’ve had it with me all the time.’”

After Virginia lost to UMBC, Bennett was almost universally praised for his calm demeanor. The Hoos were now trailblazers in dealing with the embarrassment of being the first in the sport in a bad way, but they were determined to learn from it and turn it into something good. Throughout the 2018-19 season, no one on the team shied away from questions around UMBC or the upset, and they dealt with hostile fans and critics en route to a 28-2 regular season and another first place finish atop the ACC.

“If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you could not have gone any other way,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said at the Cavaliers’ banner raising event.

That hit home for Cooper and the Lightning. “You need something to hold onto, and it was a really tough time for us last year. They did it, why can’t we? And we did it.”

Check out the full interview here:

Updated October 6, 2020 - Jon Cooper joined the Jim Rome show to talk about that UVA hat.