September 19, 2003
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.

Coaching runs 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 practice."

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'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."

When Lucia 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 pieces out."

"Don is a very relaxed guy and consistent in his approach... people want to play in that type of environment."
John Hill, Alaska Anchorage head coach

The players, 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 the Tigers.

"There 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 tradition."

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 said.

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.

"He tried 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."

When Lucia 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."

"Going outside 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."

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