From the judo mat to the ice, via the water – how a Disney film changed the direction of Sam Cooper’s incredible sporting story

Sam Cooper possesses a remarkable story across three totally different sports - and he’s still only 17!

By Simon Carter
Thursday, 9th December 2021, 10:16 am
Updated Thursday, 9th December 2021, 12:27 pm
Sam Cooper in action for the Romford Raiders

A former junior national judo champion, the Portsmouth Grammar School pupil was also a highly promising wakeboarder - until his life was changed by watching a Disney film!

Hooked on ice hockey after watching the 1990s Disney franchise Mighty Ducks, Sam is now aiming to become only the second ever British-born player to appear in the North American National Hockey League.

This week he travelled to Romania as part of the Great Britain team to take part in the Under-20 World Ice Hockey Championships. The youngest member of the squad, he is also eligible to take part in the Under-18 event in Estonia next spring.

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Sam Cooper, right, during his successful junior judo career

Sam’s weekly routine is remarkable. He studies for Maths, Physics and PE A levels in the morning before training every afternoon - Monday through to Friday - for the Guildford Flames, where he is the youngest member of the squad.

Three days a week, along with his dad Paul, a former Portsmouth and Havant field hockey player, he will travel on to train in the evening 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 tier, the National League.

‘The Raiders don’t start training until 10pm, and they finish at 11.45pm,’ said Paul, who has invested in an electric car to reduce travelling costs for his 1,200 plus miles a week.

Sam Cooper in action for the Romford Raiders

There is a lot of mileage involved in games as well. One weekend last month saw Sam playing for the Raiders at Leeds and Peterborough. In the Elite League, trips to Belfast, Fife and Glasgow are on the Flames’ fixture list.

‘Sam got into ice hockey through watching the Disney film Mighty Ducks,’ explained Paul.

‘I took him to the Gosport ice rink and he loved it.

‘We were in Swindon for a judo competition and we went and watched an ice hockey match. Sam was like ‘dad, can I have a stick and some roller blades?’ He’s never looked back.

Sam Cooper wakeboarding. Picture by Cayote Pictures

‘He’s a late developer. He was 10 when he started and most kids (who take up ice hockey) are skating when they’re three or four.

‘Sam loved his judo, but he preferred hockey - it was a lot faster, a team sport, it fitted his profile more.’

Prior to the pandemic, the plan was for Sam to continue his studies in North America. He spent 10 weeks in 2020 studying from 1pm-9pm online as part of the Canadian education system, with a view to joining the Hill Academy in Ontario.

Though he was asked back this year, the previous financial aid package was not available.

Sam Cooper pictured with Olympic sailing legend Sir Ben Ainslie after winning a Portsmouth City Council young sportsman of the year trophy

Sam’s career plan, though, still involves moving across the Atlantic on completion of his A levels.

‘In order to get on the NHL draft list, you need to be in America, you need to have an agent - that’s when it starts to get serious really,’ explained Paul.

The family are currently in talks with people who 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 only - British-raised player to be selected via the NHL draft process.

Such a dream is all a far cry from Sam’s successes on a judo mat. Having started out at the Fort Purbrook club, he was on the sport’s Olympic pathway and training with the likes of Ashley McKenzie in Camberley, Surrey.

Sam won British Judo Council national events at Open, Closed and School level, and was runner-up in the National and British Junior Championships. He was ranked No 2 in the country when he was at Under-14 level.

Having been introduced to wakeboarding on the course near Hilsea Lido, Sam was also ranked No 11 in the world at Under-12 level in that sport before ice hockey proved an irresistible lure.

‘Concentrating on school and ice hockey is really hard,’ said Sam. ‘It would be near enough impossible to have continued with the 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 still do it.’

Sam has played all forms of hockey. He used to play the field version for his dad’s former club, City of Portsmouth, but ‘never really got into it - it was a bit too slow for me.’

He has also represented GB at roller hockey - being part of the Under-12 and Under-14 squads - and was also part of the GB Under-19 skate hockey squad. For the uninitiated, skate hockey - also known as inline skating 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 sporting global adventures: he has previously played in France with Guildford Flames juniors, Latvia with the GB under-16 ice hockey team, and Slovenia with the GB under-14 ice hockey team. With his roller hockey hat on, Sam also visited California and went to Switzerland to play skate hockey.