Stephen Cooper was an outstanding British defenceman, playing over 1,000 club games and assisting Durham Wasps and Cardiff Devils to five consecutive league and championship doubles, including two Grand Slams. He was capped 61 times for Great Britain, including their rapid climb from the World Championship D Pool to A Pool.
One of a trio of talented Brits of their generation to be inducted into the Hall, he and his younger brother Ian epitomised professionalism. Their impact, along with that of Scotsman Tony Hand, was an inspiration to other youngsters keen to take up the sport.
Much of Stephen’s early training took place at the new Crowtree rink in Sunderland. When he was 13 he joined Durham’s junior Mosquitoes and later graduated to their second team, the Hornets, lacing up his skates as much as six days a week. North-east England rearguard Micky Curry (who later became a referee and is also a Hall of Famer) convinced him to switch from forward to the blueline and taught him the finer points of defence.
After making his senior debut for the Wasps in 1980-81, he was awarded the Montfort Trophy as Rookie of the Year in his first full season a year later. Durham topped their section of the British League in 1982-83, the first of six seasons in which they and the Cooper brothers won two Heineken British League titles, two British Championships and two Norwich Union Cups. Twice chosen an All-Star ‘A’ team defenceman, Stephen became as sought after as any overseas player.
Cardiff Devils tempted him (and brother Ian) with a big pay offer in the summer of 1988. Stephen’s hard hitting play and stamina – he regularly clocked up 45-50 minutes per match – made him the defensive rock on which Devils lifted the Division One crown and then won promotion to the Premier Division. His third selection to the All-Star ‘A’ team was a formality.
In their first season in the top flight, Cardiff overturned odds of 500-1 to clinch the Premier Division title, followed by the dramatic 1990 British Championship final at Wembley Arena, which took double overtime and a penalty shoot-out to decide the result in the Devils’ favour.
That summer Durham offered professional wages, too. Combined with the call of home, the brothers were persuaded to return north, a move that enabled the Wasps to race to a Grand Slam of league, championship and cup titles while Stephen racked up 118 points (43 goals).
After helping Wasps retain the league and championship, he returned to Cardiff in 1992 where over the next four years the Devils added two league titles, two championships and a cup and Cooper won two more All-Star citations. He also featured in Devils’ unexpected European Cup triumph in the autumn of 1994 when they beat two former Soviet teams to become the first British side to earn a place in the semi-finals.
In the summer of 1996, Cooper parted company with his brother and jumped at the chance to join his Cardiff coach John Lawless when he moved to the Nynex Arena in Manchester, the vast, 17,000-seat home of the new Superleague’s glamorous Manchester Storm. Surrounded by some of the finest overseas talent seen in Britain for decades, he stayed two seasons before moving to two other Superleague clubs, first Newcastle Riverkings and then Nottingham Panthers.
After turning 33 during season 1999-2000, he began to feel the toll that his particularly physical style had taken on his body, but he was still fit enough to prolong his career by competing for a final two seasons in the second tier. A year with Hull Thunder, before they collapsed with financial trouble, was followed by one with the ambitious Coventry Blaze which he helped to runners-up spot in the Findus British National League and the finals of the Challenge Cup and the Play-offs.
Over his 22-year career, Stephen played a total of 1,010 official games, scoring 1,262 points (407 goals), while serving 1,494 penalty minutes.
He was a regular on the GB national teams, junior and senior. Between 1989 and 2000 he was picked 61 times by the senior squad, lining up in nine World Championships (including one qualifier) and two Olympic Qualifying competitions. His most memorable games came in 1993 when GB won promotion to Pool A and the following year in Italy when they faced the might of Russia and Canada. In two of the years (1990 and 1993) when GB won promotion, he was voted the Best Defenceman of the tournament.
First selected for the under-18s in 1982 when he was 15, he competed three times at this level, being voted the tournament’s Best Defenceman in 1983. His last appearance was marked by his captaincy of the team and the award of Best British Player. He was capped by the under-20s in 1984 and 1986.
Cooper’s rapier-like slapshot, allied with his positional sense and physical presence, earned him a higher than usual number of points for a defenceman. This helped to bring him a record nine Alan Weeks Trophies, presented annually to the Best British Defenceman by the Ice Hockey Writers’ Association.
Stephen Cooper was born on 11 November 1966 at Peterlee, Co. Durham. His number 55 shirt was officially retired in 2002 and now hangs from the rafters at Coventry’s Skydome in honour of his outstanding career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.