Over the past decade, you’ve probably come to realize that Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t often struggle to find the right words. But on Thursday night, he did. He struggled with a lot of things, not the least of which were his emotions. Grief will do that to a person.
And Jon Cooper is grieving. Heavily. So is one of his players, Lightning veteran Pat Maroon. That’s because they learned Thursday morning that the night before, just a few hours before Cooper’s triple fist pump celebrating Nikita Kucherov’s goal with 7.8 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, there had been a terrible car accident in a place called Webster Parish, Louisiana, more than 2,000 miles southeast of the NHL bubble in Edmonton. For hockey purposes, it might as well be a million miles away. But for Cooper and Maroon, it’s far too close and far too raw.
According to police reports, Kim Cannon was driving her SUV on Interstate 20 in the Dixie Inn area of Webster Parish, about 26 miles from her home in Shreveport, when she was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer driver who failed to reduce his speed as he approached traffic congestion. The 18-wheeler propelled Cannon’s car into another tractor-trailer before the car overturned. Kimberly Cannon was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident from blunt force trauma injuries. She was just 35 years old.
Most hockey fans, outside of those who followed the defunct Texarkana Bandits and St. Louis Bandits of the North American Jr. League, have no idea who Kim Cannon was. But for Cooper and Maroon, along with current and former NHLers such as Keith Kinkaid, Erik Condra and Matt Taormina, Kim Cannon was one of those people you never forget, one of those people who was content to work tirelessly behind the scenes to help them realize their hockey dreams. Cannon started with Cooper in 2003 when he left his law practice in Detroit to run the Texarkana Bandits, a start-up in the NAHL owned by former St. Louis Blues enforcer Kelly Chase. The team played out of a rodeo barn and had to drive two hours one way just to practice. Cannon joined the team as a 19-year-old selling merchandise out of a shed behind the rink and the more Cooper worked with her, the more responsibility he gave her, making her the Bandits’ director of team operations, which meant she did everything from arranging billets for players to setting up their schooling, helping them get recruited by college teams and even occasionally bailing them out of trouble. She followed Cooper when the team moved to St. Louis in 2007, winning two Robertson Cup champions with Cooper and two more with former NHLer Jeff Brown coaching the team before it was sold in 2013.
In short, Kim Cannon was one of those people who are the lifeblood of hockey, people who work furiously to make the players and coaches look good. And for Cooper and Maroon, she was instrumental to their success. “She was born an angel,” said Maroon, who plans to write ‘Kim Cannon, Rest in Peace’ on his stick for Game 3 Friday night, “and she left this world as an angel. She was like another sister to me. You could talk to her about anything and she always had your back. She had the most beautiful smile ever and she loved taking care of everyone.”
Maroon was 17 years old when he showed up in Texarkana to play for the Bandits. It was his first time away from home and almost every day his mother would text or call Kim Cannon to ask how her son was doing. Kim would tell Maroon’s mother that she was taking good care of her son. Cooper was also incredibly wet behind the ears when he came to Texarkana to start a junior hockey team from scratch in a market that bordered Texas and Arkansas and had almost no knowledge of the game. “We’re playing in the Four States Fairgrounds and we’re trying to sell Tier II Jr. A hockey to people in the south,” Cooper said. “And here is this 19-year-old girl who we bring on to be the part-time merchandise-selling girl who, little do we know at the time, is going to touch our lives forever. She was the best.”
When Cooper and his wife, Jessica, were putting in the ice and painting the lines, Kim Cannon was there to help. When anything that didn’t have to do with hockey operations needed to be done, she was there. That freed up Cooper to worry about the hockey team and building a roster that would develop into one of the top Jr. A teams in the country. All of those growing pains, all of those lessons that Cooper learned about the game, came with Cannon working alongside him and allowing him to take the bows for the team’s success. “She did all the things that would never get you in the newspaper,” Cooper said. “She always put everyone else in front of her. By the time we got to St. Louis, she was basically running the team outside of the hockey and I was getting all the credit for it. I couldn’t live without her, that’s how important she was. If we were ever fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup, she would have been one of the first people to drink out of it.”
Kelly Chase said Kim Cannon was one of those people you wanted representing your organization. With a big smile and personality to match, she had an impact on almost every player who played in that organization. “We won national championships and we put 70-some kids in college and she was a big part of that,” Chase said. “She would help to get kids into college and I have two of them who are doctors who call me all the time. And you have Patrick Maroon, who has won a Stanley Cup, and Keith Kinkaid. She was a part of their life and their upbringing and they don’t forget that.”
Neither Cooper nor Maroon will forget, that much is sure. Cooper is intent on doing something permanent to preserve Kim Cannon’s memory, perhaps sponsoring some kind of internship with the NAHL. Both are in the bubble and without their support network, so they have leaned on each other. And for a couple of hours Friday night, both will find refuge in the game. “She’s going to be smiling down on me and ‘Coop’ with that big smile of hers,” Maroon said. “We’re going to miss that smile.”