Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Stand By Your (Rival's) Man

While a legion of Minnesota hockey fans continues to hope for the return of alum Dean Blais to resurrect the men's hockey program from the depths of darkness (or, in their case, the fact they only won two national championships last decade), Don Lucia is still doing his best to make this season a success.

At the age of 52, Lucia has been written off by many Gopher fans, many of whom believe that if Joel Maturi would just commit to making a change, Blais would waltz in the front door and fix everything that's wrong with Gopher hockey.

As proven by the University of Michigan -- a fine institution with great football tradition that just fired their third-year head coach because they thought the big-name alum would never dream of turning them down -- this is a very dangerous assumption.

(Of course, Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez with the hopes that Jim Harbaugh would rescue them. Instead, they were stuck hiring their "Michigan man" in Brady Hoke, who has exactly two winning seasons as a head coach.)

Whether your coach has won over 500 games in his career, or he's perennially 15 games under .500, it's a tough sell for an athletic director to fire a coach without some sort of assurance that the school can do better.

Given what Lucia has accomplished, is it a slam dunk that the "Main U" can do better than him?

Probably not.


For fans, it's part of life to root for the backup quarterback/goalie and the replacement coach. The guy you have is never good enough, because THIS OTHER PERSON you really don't know anything about is automatically better.

The worst thing that a Gopher fan can say about Lucia is that he was late to the party when it came time to adjust to his early departures. The idea that this program is forever floundering under his leadership is so ridiculous it barely merits mention.

As he told College Hockey News in July, he believes the program is still doing just fine.

The Internet has a life of its own now. ... The bottom line, our kids graduate. We've won a lot. Are we where we want to be right now? No. The trick is, we need to keep our kids long enough. It used to be a guy was an All-American before he left. If you can keep those guys long enough — look at what RIT did in Atlantic Hockey, or Bemidji State before that. Why? It was a bunch of 22- and 23-year olds. They were grizzled vets. They aren't going to play in the NHL. We've got to find a way to have that. Some kids like (current senior) Mike Hoeffel wanted to stay and graduate. Most of them that are drafted, they can all leave if they want, at any time and more than likely (their drafted team will) sign them.

Lucia may have been late to the party, but he got the message.

College hockey teams need star players. Last year, Boston College had Cam Atkinson, but they also had older veteran types like Carl Sneep and Matt Lombardi. Atkinson may have been a big part of the offense, but the veterans brought the experience and leadership. Wisconsin had some young guns, but also older glue guys like Ben Street, Aaron Bendickson, Andy Bohmbach, and Michael Davies.

Minnesota needed more role players the last few years. Glue guys. Veterans. Guys who stay their four years, pay their dues, and bring the kind of "want to" that's hard to duplicate. Right now, many of their older guys are high draft picks who haven't panned out.

That could change, though.

Freshman Tom Serratore is all about heart and soul. Hell, he's a Serratore, so that should tell you all you need to know about his game. He won't dazzle anyone, but his skills are supplemented by an great competitive streak and a toughness that will serve him well as he grows up. He's 21, so he'll be 25 as a senior.

It's the older juniors and seniors that can make a team go in the spring. The reality is that you can't keep bona-fide future NHL stars in college long enough. You have to build a solid team around the stars, one that can sustain itself when the star leaves early.

Lucia recognizes that, and he appears to be making a more concentrated effort toward recruiting those types of players. That will make his top-notch recruits even more dangerous, because they won't have to eat those third- and fourth-line minutes when they should be getting power play time.


Minnesota plays UMD this weekend. UMD fans don't like Lucia, but I always have. From a professional standpoint, I couldn't ask an opposing coach to be more accommodating than he's been. But my favorite Lucia story has nothing to do with interviews or sound bites.

On Dec. 14, 2007, Lucia was in Duluth for a UMD game. His Gophers weren't playing. Instead, it was a chance for him to see the U.S. Under 18 National Team, a team that featured future Gophers Jordan Schroeder and Sam Lofquist.

During the second intermission, my father-in-law, who has rarely passed up an opportunity to schmooze with someone (something that is still hardly a strength of mine) decided to introduce himself to the coach, who was in the same section taking advantage of some empty seats.

After doing that, he decided that Lucia should meet my son, who was in his first year of playing little-kids hockey. Since it was close to Christmas, Lucia asked the boy, five at the time, if he was going to get a Gopher jersey from Santa.

My son's response? Looked at Lucia, totally serious, and said, "I am NOT a Gopher fan."

Good sport that he is, Lucia laughed it off, and probably crossed my son off his list of potential commitments for the 2021-22 season.


Reality is pretty simple.

Lucia has won two national championships and, literally, hundreds of games in college hockey. He hasn't lost his mind, and he hasn't simply forgotten how to coach kids.

If Minnesota thinks they can do better, they're probably mistaken. The Gophers have been hit hard by early departures, and they've been hit hard by the ability of the state's other four NCAA Division I programs -- along with nearby North Dakota -- to recruit Minnesota kids. Minnesota no longer has their pick of Minnesota talent. Instead, they have to 1) compete with UMD, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and North Dakota; 2) realize that they won't win all those races; and 3) succeed in recruiting out-of-state players to make up for the in-state talent they don't get.

The sport isn't what it used to be. It's not easy to get to the NCAA Tournament, the Frozen Four, or the title game. It's not easy to get home-ice and make the WCHA Final Five.

For once, though, it would be nice if the fans could just support the team and let the coach do his job. If fans really did know everything, UMD wouldn't be playing .740 hockey for Scott Sandelin right now. After all, many UMD fans wanted him out three years ago. Instead, he stuck around, and while it's been 25 years since UMD posted three straight 20-win seasons, they're three wins away from making it happen.

Oh, and there are at least 12 games left on the schedule. I like their chances.

I like Lucia's, too, even if no one else does at this point. What I wrote about him last year still stands today.

Listen. You're not going to find excuses for Gopher hockey shortcomings in this space. They're not nearly as good as they should be, and Lucia deserves at least some blame for it.

However, this guy didn't win over 500 games and two national championships in college hockey by being a dummy. To suggest that the game has passed him by at age 51 is just silly. He's still sharp, still well-connected, and still knows how to win games.

Tell me I'm wrong, because I'm certain that I'm not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent take. More organizations, whether on the professional, college, or even high school level, should be showing patience, especially with a proven winner, rather than bowing to the whims of the wannabe experts sitting in the bleachers. Great post Bruce.