Don the Builder
By Mike Eidelbes
Don Lucia has won at
Alaska-Fairbanks. He's won at Colorado College. Obviously, he's
won at Minnesota. In each case, it wasn't like he was Mike Martz
inheriting a Super Bowl championship team.
The man is responsible
for more turnarounds than a poorly marked exit ramp on an interstate
highway. You know he's done it. You've seen him do it. But most
people don't know how he's done it.
in the Lucia family – his father was a successful high school
football coach in northern Minnesota. So he had first-hand knowledge
of what it takes to be a coach, but, as with anything, one doesn't
learn a craft until they've actually done it. For Lucia, that
process started in 1986, when he was named head coach at Alaska-Fairbanks.
In six years
piloting the Nanooks, Lucia racked up a 113-87-10 record and won
more than 20 games in a season four times, a feat made more impressive
when one considers UAF was in the process of moving its hockey
program to the NCAA Division I ranks, had a rink (the fabulously
named Big Dipper Arena) that seated no more than 600 fans until
the Carlson Center opened prior to his fourth season, and was
operating on a budget that aspired to shoestring status.
"I remember many
times going on a road trip with just a student trainer, a student
manager and myself," Lucia recalled. "We'd be gone 10
days to play five games over a Friday-Saturday-Tuesday-Friday-Saturday.
You'd find the cheapest hotel you could, and maybe stay with a
parent on the road to try and save money. Those were the days
where I'd run the first half of practice, get on the Zamboni and
clear the ice, then get on the ice and run the second half of
Recruiting trips were
even longer, and thriftiness was also a necessity.
"Flying out to
western Canada in March and renting a car in Calgary and being
gone for 16 days, driving 3,000-4,000 miles all over the place
trying to find players," Lucia said. "It's healthy for
a young coach to have to do those things."
According to those
who've coached alongside him in the past such as former Colorado
College and Minnesota assistant John Hill, now the head coach
at Alaska Anchorage, Lucia developed his tenacity and feel for
recruiting at UAF.
"His ability to
identify, evaluate and convince kids with a lot of skill to play
the type of game he plays has been very important," Hill
says. "Don does a good job of staying on top of recruiting.
He stays on top of it as a head coach...you've got to stay out
on the road, you've got to identify talent, you've got to have
your finger on the pulse of recruiting. Even now that he's at
Minnesota, I don't think you'll find him getting lazy with recruiting."
took over at Colorado College in 1993-94, he wasn't charged with
elevating a program to Division I status. But he might have well
been. The Tigers hadn't posted a winning record since Jeff Sauer's
squad went 21-17-0 in 1979-80, a span of 13 seasons. What's more,
the team he inherited was fresh off a 8-28-0 season – one
of the worst showings in school history – and a last-place
finish in the WCHA. The Tigers allowed 174 goals in conference
play, nearly 30 more than any other team in the league. But rather
than institute a radical reconstruction, Lucia assessed the situation
at hand and figured out how the players fit into his master plan.
"He didn't come
in saying it had to be his way or the highway," said current
Colorado College head coach Scott Owens, an assistant under Lucia
from 1993-95. "There were some decent players here and he
got the most out of them. He didn't come in and start throwing
is a very relaxed guy and consistent in his approach... people
want to play in that type of environment."
Hill, Alaska Anchorage head coach
who were involved in the interview process for the new coach,
were energized by Lucia's style of play, a wide-open approach
which emphasizes puck possession and special teams and allows
players to be able to be creative with the puck and make things
happen on the ice. They bought into Lucia's vision almost immediately.
At the same time, the new coach's demeanor and consistency steadied
was some talent there, but they were pretty beaten down when I
arrived," Lucia said. "The first order of business was
to put the smiles back on the kids' faces, make them look forward
to coming to the rink and putting the enjoyment back in the game.
Hockey should be a fun game to play, a fun game to practice and
kids should look forward to coming down to the rink."
Hill concurred. "He
recognized that he needed to go in and it needed to be loose and
relaxed and that these guys needed to rediscover their passion
for hockey. Don is a very relaxed guy and consistent in his approach
and I think it's beneficial to developing hockey players. People
want to play in that type of environment and that type of atmosphere.
There's not a lot of yelling and screaming and not a lot of restrictions
placed on kids."
The results of Lucia's
plans were immediate and dramatic. The Tigers went from last place
to their first conference championship since 1957, when the WCHA
was known as the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League, and marked
the first of three straight MacNaughton Cups for Colorado College.
Lucia called the season a "fairy-tale year."
"Once you have
success, the tough part is maintaining it," Hill said, "especially
at a place like Colorado College, where you didn't have the rich
Not only did
the Tigers lack a winning tradition, but they also didn't have
a rink of their own. From the end of the 1993-94 season when the
historic Broadmoor Arena was razed until the World Arena was completed
in January 1998, Colorado College played home games at the Air
Force Academy's modest ice sheet. Had the Tigers not made their
Cinderella run in Lucia's first year, the program may have vanished
from the college hockey landscape.
"I really think
had we not had a successful year my first year and the (Broadmoor)
Arena had been torn down, there would have been a lot of people
wanting to drop the program at that point in time," Lucia
Colorado College remains
one of the nation's most consistent and prestigious college hockey
programs. Owens, who replaced Lucia behind the Tigers' bench in
1999, has built on the legacy created by his predecessor.
to instill a sense of excellence that we've carried on for 10
years," Owens said. "People don't talk that much about
it being Don Lucia hockey in Colorado Springs, nor do they say
it's Scott Owens hockey. It's Colorado College hockey. A lot of
that has been built...upon what Don has done."
took the Minnesota job in 1999, he inherited some unique advantages.
Program prestige was at the top of the list and, certainly, the
Golden Gophers' rich tradition and first-rate facilities were
attractive to recruits.
"Any time you
have high-caliber hockey players, they want to go into a system
where they know they'll have the chance to be creative with the
puck and be able to make plays when the puck is on their stick,"
Hill said. "They're not going to be restricted."
He also walked into
the spotlight that comes with being the Minnesota hockey coach.
The position also brings with it scrutiny and second-guessing
from armchair power-play quarterbacks from Warroad to Worthington.
"There are other
Division I schools around the state," Lucia explained, "but
the reality is that everyone is watching Gopher hockey on Friday
and Saturday nights."
One of Lucia's
decisions immediately struck a nerve with Gopher fans –
actively recruiting non-Minnesotans. It's no surprise the subject
was a touchy one. "U" supporters have long reveled in
the fact that the vast majority of players hailed from the state,
and the squad is trumpeted as "Minnesota's Pride on Ice."
the borders was a little bit different for many people and there's
still that apprehension from (non-Minnesota) kids about coming
here," said Lucia, who did pretty well with his first recruit
from outside Minnesota, North Dakotan Grant Potulny. "We're
out to find the best players, whether from Minnesota or anywhere
else. But all things being equal, we're going take the Minnesota
kids and we're always going to be sensitive to making sure a large
percentage of our roster is always going to be from Minnesota."
While the team Lucia
inherited at Minnesota wasn't as beaten down as his first team
at Colorado College, the attitudes he encountered in the locker
room may have been more divisive. It was a group of individuals,
not a team, and selfishness was an issue.
"We tried to forge
the team concept," Lucia said. "I felt there were a
lot of kids...maybe it was their dream to play at Minnesota. Once
that dream came true, they didn't work as hard as they would if
they wanted to get to that next level as a player or as a team.
"One of the things
I preached was that it's great that you want to be a part of the
tradition at the University of Minnesota, but we want to forge
our own tradition because there have been a lot of great players,
great teams and great coaches before me and there's certainly
going to be a lot after we're here. We want to do what we can
to add to the tradition that this program has."
Consider that mission
accomplished. Minnesota has won back-to-back NCAA championships
and, with all but a handful of key components returning from last
year's squad, the Gophers have a good shot at winning a third
straight national title. Of course, Lucia recognizes that the
players make the difference.
"You can't take
anything for granted," Lucia said. "We all know you
win with talent. Coaches can only do so much. More often than
not, the team that gets off the bus with the best players will
win the game."