Barkley’s NHL affin­ity,

Chance meet­ing in bar started friend­ship

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Kevin Allen USA TO­DAY

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.

JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

REIN­HOLD MATAY/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Light­ning head coach Jon Cooper ad­mires that Charles Barkley is a “gen­uine per­son.”

MATT KARTOZIAN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Hall of Fame NBA player Charles Barkley, shown at a Coy­otes game, is good friends with Light­ning coach Jon Cooper.

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