Q&A: Minnesota coach Don Lucia
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Minnesota is known as the state of hockey, and probably for good reason. As a result, its signature college hockey team, the Gophers, play under a microscope, and are a lightning rod for hate among fans of other teams. But Minnesota's issues the last few seasons are but a window into the "state of college hockey" in general. The team has lost upwards of a dozen players to major junior and the pros in the last three years, partly because they bring in so many blue chippers to begin with.
College Hockey News spoke at length with Minnesota coach Don Lucia about the state of his program, the criticism he takes, and how its fits into the big picture. Among the topics were the now-infamous departure of Kyle Okposo mid-season 2007-08, the recent loss of sophomores-to-be Nick Leddy and Josh Birkholz (to go along with Jordan Schroeder's departure right after the season), slipping down the WCHA standings the last two years (after numerous strongs seasons, and national titles in 2002 and 2003, Lucia's third and fourth seasons on the job), and recruiting in general.
Lucia has also recently been completely cleared of sarcoidosis, a medical condition that affected him the last year and a half. The condition involves inflammation and lumping of cells, which pressed against a nerve in Lucia's face, causing numbness. The treatments were tiring, but they have now ended.
Be sure to also read our commentary about Lucia and the state of Minnesota hockey.
CHN: So, I guess I'm doing better than you today. Another two players are gone.
Lucia: Well, that's the way things are. I just wish we had a rule similar to Major Junior, where the only way he (Leddy) could leave (major junior) is if he played for Chicago. He couldn't play in the AHL until a certain age.
I don't blame the kid. Their dream is to play in the NHL. It's changed in the last half dozen years or so. Kids used to dream of playing college hockey. Now the dream for a lot of them is the NHL and how quickly they can get there. You see kids jumping from school to school. Agents are with kids at age 15 or 16. So the process is geared towards the NHL.
CHN: It's a Catch-22 in a sense, because more players than ever in the NHL are from college, so people see it as a path to the NHL.
Lucia: It's a path and it's a good path. And now, with the salary cap, the NHL is more into drafting and the kids coming up through the system. ... It's not one thing, it's a number of things. Even some of the best players we had, when we were winning our national championships, they left and they were 22 years old. They weren't 19 or 20 (when they left). They wanted to go directly to the NHL. Now it's OK to go when you're not ready.
CHN: It's preaching to the converted here, since we all see the merits of staying — but the kids don't always see it.
Lucia: Everyone is different. Jimmy O'Brien signed (with Ottawa) after his freshman year. He played two years in major junior, one year in the AHL, and next year, he'll start in the AHL. If he stayed here four years, he'd be in the same position he is now, but he would've graduated.
It comes down to the kid and the parents, and what they want to do. When I went through the process with my kid, I knew there was one kid that will graduate (laughs). You see kids leave too early all the time. I've never seen a kid leave too late.
CHN: There are a lot of criticisms that float out there about yourself and Minnesota. And they are easy to shoot down, but at some point, are you concerned that perception becomes reality, and has that already happened?
Lucia: (Last year), we had more guys in the NHL than any other team in our league. We've had good recruiting. What we have gone through is a lot of kids leaving. One, when the new CBA came in, we did not anticipate kids would leave as quickly as they did. In '06, '07 and '08, we lost 11 kids in three years. That's going to have an effect in any program. We've had kids that were one and done. So then we tried to bring in older kids, and then Stu Bickel, who was 20 when he came here, he leaves after one year. So a lot of these kids have gone on and been successful.
Obviously because of where we are, we'll be under more scrutiny. There's more advisors and agents around, we're in a pro market, we deal with younger kids for the most part. Some will get drafted higher than they should have. Maybe others should've been drafted higher than they were. We deal with some of these kids. When they come out of high school hockey in Minnesota, maybe they haven't been exposed yet, and maybe are getting exposed now.
But you know, we have great strength and conditioning program. Nick Leddy went in and blew away Chicago. We have guys that play at other colleges training here.
CHN: So you're not worried about a perception that Minnesota is in trouble?
Lucia: 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.
When Kyle Okposo left, that was a different situation. ...
Our job in college is to educate our players, graduate players and have a successful program. Our job is not a farm team for the NHL. At the same time, I tell kids, I want you to have a great experience, I want you to become the best player you can become. Not every player is going to go to the NHL, and I don't want them to think they're a failure if they don't. For me, it's never been the end all for a kid.
CHN: You speak to Kyle regularly?
Lucia: Kyle works out here. All of our guys that leave, I always tell them, "You've got a place to train." They have great camraderie.
The bottom line is, Kyle is a great kid and we have a good relationship.
CHN: So how do you get through this?
Lucia: You have to stay true to yourself. This is what I believe. I've gone back a lot of years. We were one game under .500 last season. It's the first time one of our teams was under .500 since (I coached at) Alaska. That's a long time. Everyone goes through ups and downs, especially now. You stay true to what you believe.
It's easier to be a critic because of the anonymity of the Internet. But I know what we do, and I know the success we've had over the years.
CHN: Do you feel as though perception becomes reality and any of it is affecting your recruiting?
Lucia: No. I don't think it has any effect. We've had a great recruiting class. They come here and see what we do. The kids have everything they need to be successful and be the best student they can be.
CHN: This blog posting I saw in March, it was from a fairly reputable blogger who used to work for the Islanders. It was about whether (Minnesota junior-to-be) Aaron Ness (an Islanders draft pick) should leave. And one of his criticisms was that you ripped the AHL to players — which I thought was unfair, since just about every college coach tells players that it's better to wait if they're only going to play in the AHL.
Lucia: I am not critical of the AHL. Obviously they have very good coaches and everything. My point is, one of the great things about college is the age the kids are and what do they need. They need maturity in the weight room. And I think our schedule for that age is better for them. If you're playing four games in five nights, you can't get in the weight room, you can't build your body.
I just want a kid, when he leaves, he's on the cusp (of the NHL). Not many kids are going to go directly — there will be a few — but be on the cusp. Maybe play 40/40. But I've seen a lot of kids leave here that go to the AHL and never make it.
The flip side to that is, you brought him in and (then you hear), "Oh, you must be a poor judge of players because he never made it." The majority of responsibility (in that case) is on the kid. Look at how many first rounders make the NHL. Fifty percent; the chances of making a living vs. having a cup of coffee. Does it help them to leave? I guess I'm just old school. I believe in education and believe in a college degree, and I believe you can — and many kids prove it — go to college, graduate, then play in the NHL. Even if a guy stays a third year — like (Alex) Goligoski — and has a one year left for his degree, which is a doable.
CHN: So I guess Aaron Ness isn't going anywhere?
Lucia: Aaron Ness is going to be a really good player. He needed time physically. He didn't get a chance to get into the program before his freshman year because he was finishing high school. I talked to him last week. He's finally becoming stronger. I told him, "It's not going to matter. You're still going to become the player you'll become." But it takes time. I remember Jordan Leopold as a sophomore. We were trying to get him to do more. He was too passive. We told him to go with the puck more, do more. Paul Martin was 19 1/2 (years old) before he ever stepped on campus. Now all of a sudden, we want kids at 19 or 20 to arrive complete.
Casey Wellman is a great example. Too many kids now, there's too much noise. There's parents, advisors, NHL personnel. There's too much in their ears. My point is, let them grow at their own rate. Wellman was 19-20 playing in the USHL. Nobody drafted him. He goes to UMass, and in two years, every NHL team wants him. There was no noise. We're trying to push kids through the system with too much pressure, too much noise.
CHN: How do you convince the kids and their families?
Lucia: That's the hard part. They have to look at it like they're not trying to keep up with anybody and just doing what's best for my kids.
I wish we could put in an age where a player can't play with an AHL team. There's things in place to protect European leagues. I'm not going to diss the Canadian Hockey League. For some kids, it's a good route. But we have a good product too. And allow us to grow and nurture them so they're ready to fulfill their promise.
The new NCAA proposal (that would limit commitments until senior year of high school), I am 100 percent in favor of. In my opinion — and there are others, but we're in the minority — if you think kids are gonna go to the CHL, they're gonna go. There are instances where kids are committed (to college) in 10th grade, and what happens is, they go anyway. So it's not keeping those kids. If you couldn't offer kids until they were going into their senior year, there would be less pressure, fewer recruiting mistakes.
CHN: Well, that's the other thing you see, kids bailing out. And you've taken heat for that too lately, with kids decommitting and people claiming it's another indication of a problem.
Lucia: What we're dealing with now is catch-22. You're getting squeezed from both ends. We have to protect our program because you don't know how long you're going to have kids. So we better recruit in case someone leaves, and if they don't leave, you'll have to play junior hockey.
(Minnesota forward) Jay Barriball will be back this season (on a medical redshirt). I didn't know that (before last season). I don't have a scholarship to give now. Today, kids are as interested in what role I'm gonna have. "Do I want to play for a school and be a third or fourth liner, or do I want to play for a school and be in the top two lines?" You know what? It's better for kids to look at that before they get there.
CHN: A recent article mentioned (17-year old blue chipper) Seth Ambroz as going back to junior, and other players switched commitments.
Lucia: There are reasons for different things, and no one asks me. That's what's bothersome. Ambroz couldn't get all of his high school classwork completed in time. He had no option but to return to junior for another season. ... But anyone can say anything, and then it gets repeated.
For all of us, it's a new age. We're trying to find a mix. We have to try to find kids who can go play a couple years of juniors that won't be drafted. (Boston College) is the smartest of all. They have a bunch of smaller kids that are great college players. The trick is not losing payers. When BU won, they didn't lose one player. BC this year had all their guys. The trick is to recruit talented players who don't leave. What's the balancing act?
I'm happy for Nick Leddy, he's a great kid. He might be going into a situation with Chicago's (salary) cap issues where he might get a chance this year. Look at where Nick Leddy was. He was right out of high school, and he broke his jaw. He missed most of the first half of the season. From January on, he made phenomenal gains. He goes to Chicago's camp, and blows them away with his ability. That didn't happen by accident. He has talent, and he works extremely hard. You can't begrudge him. He went in there and outplayed some of their top players.
CHN: Again, we're preaching to the converted, but you constantly see kids come in and get so easily frustrated playing third and fourth line, so they leave, and they're never heard from again. You just had Josh Birkholz leave (he had five goals last year in 36 games).
Lucia: I think sometimes kids don't undertsand how good college hockey is. You're not going to come in and tear it up. If you play regularly, you've had a good year. If you think you're going to be on all the specialty units, it's not going to happen. Especially if, depending on age, you might have to get stronger.
I'm biased. We have a good system and a good product. The CHL has a system that works for them. The Europeans have a good system. You can't say one way is the right way.
CHN: Have you talked to Garth Snow since.
Lucia: I tried to call him shortly thereafter, and he didn't return my call. But it's OK. (Former Gopher) Trent Klatt works for them, and I've talked to him. I don't have any ill will.