Players React to Lucia Criticism
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Don Lucia may not have needed dozens of colleagues and former players rallying to his defense from Garth Snow's hare-brained comments, but it certainly can't hurt.
Lucia said he felt "stung" by Snow's accusations, reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Thursday, in the aftermath of Snow having signed Kyle Okposo to a pro deal in the middle of the college season. That was rankling enough, but Snow, the New York Islanders' general manager, added fuel to the fire when he defended his move by saying that the Minnesota program was poor at developing players, and that's why Okposo had to leave and the Islanders had to get him out of there.
Others were soon quick to rally to Lucia's defense. And not just administrators, although the comments of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi (a member of the NCAA men's ice hockey committee) and WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod were, indeed, harshly critical of Snow. But also Lucia's own former players.
"That was the farthest from the truth," said former Gopher defenseman Chris Harrington about the two-time national champion coach. "I never heard from one person that said they got worse as a player, that's for sure."
• Questions Remain in Okposo Decision
Harrington played four years at Minnesota, and now is in his second season of pro hockey with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
"(I improved) ten-fold (at Minnesota)," Harrington said. "Between (Lucia) and (assistant coach Mike) Guentzel, they're the two best, easily, that I've ever had coaching me."
Grant Potulny, who Lucia brought to Minnesota by way of North Dakota, a then-taboo move, concurred with Harrington.
"When you look at guys who have been first-round picks and have developed, like Thomas Vanek, (Keith) Ballard, (Paul) Martin — I can't imagine that Kyle thinks he's not developing there," said Potulny, who played four years with Minnesota and scored the winning goal in the 2002 NCAA championship game. "I guess he has to do what's right for him. Maybe that is what's best for him.
"The four years there, I didn't only improve as a hockey player, (Lucia) teaches you how to be a man. Pro hockey is tough. It has a lot of ups and downs. There's a lot of guys that come out that aren't prepared mentally. I think the coaching staff there is amazing."
Those words were echoed by Harrington.
"That's probably an easy excuse to leave," Harrington said of Okposo's decision. "Some guys think, 'Well, I'm too good to play college anymore, I want to play professional now,' so you say, 'I'm not getting better, the coaches aren't making me better.'
"But that's the farthest from the truth. Not only on the ice, but off the ice. (The Minnesota coaches) make you more accountable, a more well-rounded person. ... If you're going to college, you're there to develop not only as a hockey player but as a person. And that's where Lucia and his staff do a better job than anyone in the country in that. It's the best program to be in because they prepare you academically and socially."
Ryan Potulny, who was playing against older brother Grant in an AHL game Friday night in Philadelphia, also chimed in.
"The University of Minnesota was great for me. I feel like I made great strides when I was there. The staff was great to me," said Ryan Potulny, who left Minnesota after three seasons, following the 2006 NCAAs. "I feel like I got better, and the strength coach is great. I loved playing there.
"Some players just don't fit with some coaches. The player and the coach just don't get along. There's no one reason why — it's not the player's fault, it's not the coach's fault. It just happens and it's part of hockey."
Ryan Potulny said he still speaks with some players on the team, and that he'd never heard anything bad about Okposo.
"Every one of the guys said he's a good team guy, team player," Ryan Potulny said. "Kind of a quiet guy, but no one had anything bad to say about him. He just made a decision for his career. You just have to move on and hopefully he has a great career in the NHL too."
Harrington said he skated with Okposo a couple of times during the summer, and also saw no indications of this.
"I've never heard one bad thing about him. Obviously, he's skilled. After skating with him a couple times, he's a pretty good player," Harrington said. "He's pretty quiet, pretty polite, I didn't talk to him a lot. But I didn't get the impression that he was disappointed or not happy about having to come back.
The latest word in this twisted saga is that Okposo wanted to leave in the summer, but the Islanders wanted him to play in the Major Junior WHL, for Everett, which holds his rights. Okposo balked at that. What changed is that the Islanders were finally willing to assign Okposo to their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport (Conn.).
But having it all happen in mid-season was sordid for all parties.
"You've got to persevere. You've got to hang in there, and just the fact that it isn't working out, you know, you've got to kind of make the commitment to stay," said Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday. "I don't think it's the right message. Those decisions should all be done in the summer, and whatever decision you make, you stick with it, persevere with it, good or bad."
Said Harrington, "I guess if he didn't wanted to be there, he should've left. There are players who are at Minnesota who don't even get to play who could play on a lot of other teams. Why not give them an opportunity? To be there just because you think you have to, that's not right.
"I lose respect for people who say that the coaching staff there does a bad job developing players because that's just a terrible comment they're making. They need to be in the program to say something like that, because it's definitely not true."
For his part, Lucia has taken the high road. Although he did speak openly for the first time to the Pioneer Press on Friday.
"I don't think he's ever seen our team play and certainly never watched us in practice," Lucia said of Snow in the article, not mentioning him by name. "So, probably you should do that before you sit back and be critical. Just like I would never be critical of his job as general manager; I know he's got a difficult job."