Barkley’s NHL affinity,
Chance meeting in bar started friendship
TAMPA – Former NBA star Charles Barkley was passionately rooting for Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin to reach the NHL conference final “because he’s on that list that I’m on.”
Ovechkin is one of the greatest NHL players to never win a championship. Barkley has a similar status in the NBA. Barkley at least made it to the NBA Finals. Ovechkin never reached the conference final before this season.
“I wanted Ovechkin in the conference finals so I could quit hearing that stat every year,” Barkley told USA TODAY.
But Sir Charles has traveled as far as he’s going on the Ovi bandwagon because “I root for the Tampa Bay Lightning because (coach) Jon Cooper is a good friend of mine.”
The two men met by chance at the Marina Del Ray Ritz-Carlton bar a few years ago and hit it off before Barkley even knew who Cooper was.
“He was there with his dad, and we talked about hockey and basketball and everything else for three hours and he is one of the most mild-mannered guys in the world,” Barkley said. “At the end of the night, he hands me his card and I look at it and said, ‘Dude, you are the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning? You should have started the conversation with that.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”
Cooper confirmed the story, laughingly adding that they didn’t “meet at a conventional time, like 1 in the afternoon, it might have been 1 in the morning.”
As Cooper recalls, Barkley, his agent and a buddy were the only people in the bar when he came in with his family.
“We’re like, ‘ Holy cow, that’s Charles Barkley,’ and I don’t remember who spoke to him first, whether it was brother or dad, but I remember we migrated together and had a blast,” Cooper recalled. “We had so much fun, the night got away from us.”
Barkley had long been an NHL fan. He’s friends with several former NHLers, including Jeremy Roenick and Rick Tocchet. But after meeting Cooper, the basketball Hall of Famer probably became the Lightning’s most famous fan.
“We text all of the time,” Cooper said.
Cooper brought out his phone and scrolled his Barkley messages to show there is a steady stream of contact.
“I will mock his commercials, and I will always get a smart aleck answer back,” Cooper said.
Barkley loves overtime playoff hockey, and as soon as Dan Girardi scored an overtime winner against the Boston Bruins in the second round, he sent a congratulatory text.
When the Lightning acquired Ryan McDonagh on the trade deadline day, Barkley poked fun at himself for being caught up in trade deadline chatter.
“This is sad,” Barkley wrote to Cooper. “I was watching trade day shows. Laughing out loud. I hear you had a great day, congrats to you and (general manager) Steve (Yzerman).”
“He’s a genuine person,” Cooper said. “I’ve told him this: He is one of the only guys I ever met who can say whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. For everyone else, it would be offensive, but coming from him, the person leaves loving him more than he did. I don’t know how he does it. It’s a gift.”
Barkley is known to have an NHL playoff game on one of his televisions, even when he is watching NBA games. Barkley loves playoff overtime games and NHL parity. He has pointed opinions about hockey.
In an interview with USA TODAY, here is what he had to say about the NHL and the Stanley Cup playoffs:
On Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand licking two players: “If a guy licks your face, you’ve got to punch him, and the referee has to let it go,” Barkley said, meaning no penalty for the puncher. On how often he texts with
Roenick: Barkley said he regularly texts with Roenick in overtime games or when he comes across strategy decisions that he wants amplified, such as the decision on when to pull a goalie for a sixth attacker or when to bench a goalie.
“The other night I texted him about (Nashville Predators goalie) Pekka Rinne,” Barkley said. “When they took him out (and replaced him with Juuse Saros in the first period of Game 7), I asked whether it was a good move or a bad move, because I wanted to know. I trust J.R. because he is a straight shooter.”
On what he thought about the Coyotes’ April Fools’ joke of announcing he was hired as a special adviser: Barkley said he was told beforehand that it was going to happen and thought it was hilarious. “I got a lot of texts from people wanting to know what I knew about hockey,” Barkley said, laughing.
On what his NBA friends think about his fascination
with the NHL: “I don’t care what they think. I watch hockey every night in the playoffs. If you don’t love the Stanley Cup playoffs ...” he said, tailing off.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper admires that Charles Barkley is a “genuine person.”
Hall of Fame NBA player Charles Barkley, shown at a Coyotes game, is good friends with Lightning coach Jon Cooper.