From judo mat to ice to water – how a Disney movie changed the direction of Sam Cooper’s incredible sports history
A former National Junior Judo Champion, the Portsmouth Grammar School student was also a very promising wakeboarder – until his life was changed while watching a Disney movie!
Addicted to ice hockey after watching the 1990s Disney franchise Mighty Ducks, Sam is now aiming to become the second British-born player to appear in the North American National Hockey League.
This week he traveled to Romania for the Great Britain squad to compete in the Under-20 Ice Hockey World Championships. The youngest member of the team, he is also eligible to participate in the Under-18 event in Estonia next spring.
Sam’s weekly routine is remarkable. He studies for math, physics and PE A levels in the mornings before training every afternoon – Monday through Friday – for the Guildford Flames, where he is the youngest member of the team.
Three days a week, with his father Paul, a former field hockey player from Portsmouth and Havant, he will travel to train in the evenings with the Romford Raiders.
The Flames are one of 10 clubs in the British Elite Ice Hockey League, while the Raiders play in the second division, the National League.
“The Raiders don’t start training until 10pm and they end at 11:45 pm,” said Paul, who has invested in an electric car to cut travel costs for his 1,200+ kilometers per week.
There is also a lot of mileage involved in the games. One weekend last month Sam played for the Raiders in Leeds and Peterborough. In the Elite League, trips to Belfast, Fife and Glasgow are on the Flames’ program.
“Sam got into ice hockey watching the Disney movie Mighty Ducks,” said Paul.
“I took him to the Gosport rink and he loved it.
“We were in Swindon for a judo competition and we went to see an ice hockey game. Sam was like ‘Daddy, can I have a stick and inline skates?’ He never looked back.
“He’s a late developer. He was 10 when he started, and most kids (who start ice hockey) skate when they’re three or four.
“Sam liked his judo, but he preferred hockey – it was a lot faster, a team sport, it suited his profile more.”
Before the pandemic, the plan was for Sam to continue his education in North America. He spent 10 weeks in 2020 studying from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. online through the Canadian education system, with a view to joining Hill Academy in Ontario.
Although she was asked to return this year, previous financial aid was not available.
Sam’s career plan, however, still involves crossing the Atlantic at the end of his A levels.
“To be on the NHL draft list you have to be in America, you have to have an agent – that’s when it starts to get really serious,” said Paul.
The family is currently in talks with people who have helped Liam Kirk, the former Sheffield player who was an NHL Draft pick for the Arizona Coyotes three years ago.
Kirk, 21, was the first – and so far the only – player raised in Britain to be selected through the NHL draft process.
Such a dream is a far cry from Sam’s success on a judo mat. Having started at the Fort Purbrook club, he was on the Olympic path to the sport and was training with Ashley McKenzie in Camberley, Surrey.
Sam has won the British Judo Council national events at the open, closed and school level, and has finished second in the national and UK junior championships. He was ranked No. 2 in the country when he was at the under-14 level.
After being introduced to wakeboarding at the course near Hilsea Lido, Sam was also ranked world No.11 in the under-12s in the sport before ice hockey proved to be an irresistible lure.
“Concentrating on school and ice hockey is really hard,” Sam said. “It would be next to impossible to have continued with judo as well. I still watch judo, I still love it – it was really hard to give it up. If I had the time, I would do it anyway.
Sam played all forms of hockey. He used to play the pitch version for his father’s former club, City of Portsmouth, but “never really got into it – it was a little too slow for me”.
He also represented the UK in roller hockey – being part of the Under-12 and Under-14 teams – and was also part of the UK Under-19 skate hockey team. For the uninitiated, skate hockey – also known as inline skate hockey – is a contact sport using a ball, while roller hockey is a non-contact sport using a puck.
His current trip to Romania continues Sam’s global sporting adventures: he has already played in France with the Guildford Flames juniors, in Latvia with the GB Under-16 ice hockey team and in Slovenia with the Guildford Flames team. GB under 14 ice hockey. With his roller hockey cap on, Sam also visited California and traveled to Switzerland to play skate hockey.