Lucia Comfortable as Team USA Coach
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
When Don Lucia was revealed as Team USA’s head coach for the 2014 World Junior Championships back in March, it came as a surprise. Not that the University of Minnesota head coach was without credentials. Lucia, whose coaching career stretches back to 1981, is one of four head coaches in college hockey to have won back-to-back national championships. He earned his 600th career college win earlier that season.
“We’re extremely pleased to have Don as the head coach of our National Junior team,” United States World Juniors GM Jim Johannson said at the time. “He has developed some of the best American-born players over the last 25 years.”
Even more, Minnesota has had a history of coaches representing the country. Herb Brooks is the most famous example, having been behind the bench for the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” Other head coaches like Doug Woog and John Mariucci have also been assistant and head coaches during the Olympics.
So have assistants. Current Gopher assistant coach Grant Potulny was a member of Phil Housley’s coaching staff for the 2013 gold medal-winning WJC team.
Lucia himself was in Lake Placid, New York last year to observe and take part in the 2012 WJC summer camp and that was enough to convince him to take part.
“Being at Lake Placid a year ago certainly helped to understand the process,” he said.
No, Lucia being named the head coach as the United States looks to earn its third gold medal since 2010 came as a surprise because, while he already had a head coaching job, he hadn’t already done this gig.
That challenge to balance both has been, in theory, an interesting storyline this season. Turns out that being Minnesota and America’s coach simultaneously might be extra work, but it hasn’t affected either team.
The Gophers, playing in the Big Ten this season after over five decades as WCHA members, sit second in the Pairwise after a 12-2-2 start to the season. (Minnesota leads the conference with 10 points and a 3-0-1-0 record in 4 games. The majority of the inaugural 20 game Big Ten schedule comes in the second half).
“(Minnesota is) the best team we’ve played. There are some good teams, but I think this is the best team,” Boston College head coach Jerry York said about the Gophers when the Eagles faced them in late October. “They make good plays and the goaltender…it’s a pretty good club.”
The start comes a year after Lucia lost five underclassmen from a team that won a share of the WCHA regular season title and upset by eventual national champion Yale. It also comes a few years after the Gophers head coach was diagnosed with sarcoidosis and the team missed the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons.
Lucia’s new challenge comes with some caveats on and off the ice. Although change is a constant in an under-20 tournament, Team USA’s success raises expectations. He has spent off weeks in rinks scouting for Team USA along with Johannson and former Thrashers GM Don Waddell among others. The tournament runs during the holidays, meaning Lucia will miss both Christmas with his four grown-up children and his wife’s birthday.
He has also had to put together a coaching staff for the tournament in Malmo, Sweden, which started Thursday with a 5-1 win over the Czech Republic and runs through Jan. 5, 2014.
Minnesota’s head coach ended up looking across the country with St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko, longtime Boston College assistant Greg Brown, Denver assistant coach David Lassonde and Yale assistant Dan Muse.
“This is a good staff when you look around. Jim and I talked and threw out some names of people that I respected and that I’ve been around,” Lucia said about his staff, who all have input. “Obviously Bob and I worked together for a couple years and won a couple national titles, but certainly Dave Lassonde is someone I’ve known and did a great job with the goaltenders last year. He’s back on the staff again this year.
Lucia added, “Danny did a great job with the video last year and will help a little more on the ice this season. Obviously Greg Brown, you’re looking at a program like Boston College with a lot of elite athletes. They’ve had an awful lot of success over the years. So my thought process was to surround myself with good people.
“I’m a lot smarter when I have good people around me.”
The biggest challenge might be getting a team of star players to buy in for a short tournament. Team USA can play up to 7 games in 10 days. While many of the players have some familiarity between growing up and the August camp in Lake Placid, there is little time to come together.
That’s where Lucia and his staff come in. There are pockets of teammates. Three of the five Illinois players spent time on the same team growing up and both Brady Skjei and Hudson Fasching play for Minnesota. Two others – Andrew Copp of Michigan and Nic Kerdiles of Wisconsin – play for teams in the Gophers’ conference and have to face Lucia during the second half of the college season.
Both players acknowledged the awkwardness, but at the same time are excited for the opportunity.
“Obviously there’s a Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, but as a person and as a coach I respect him,” Kerdiles said about Lucia. “He has a great record and a great resume. I’m excited to play under him for a little bit.”
That effort, bringing Minnesota and Wisconsin together, sums up the World Juniors for Team USA. It’s not just a team of star players. It’s a team. Players who may play other roles with their college or junior club have to adjust. There are several scorers playing bottom-six roles this year.
Lucia is also coaching in a year where the Americans return just three players from the gold medal-winning team. Three more with eligibility are in the NHL. It makes the camp in Minneapolis and two exhibitions that much more important.
“We’ve only had a couple practices, so there’s obviously some things we need to spend some time and work on. The special teams is always a big part of it,” Lucia said at the end of four days in Minneapolis. “So that’s an area we have to finalize our team, finalize our groupings and how guys are going to play.”
Regardless of how Team USA does at the 2014 World Junior Championships, the split between America and Minnesota ends soon.
Right now this time is for the WJC. Lucia has completely removed himself from the Gophers, letting associate head coach Mike Guentzel and Potulny take charge as he has stayed away from the office. Guentzel will lead the Gophers during the Mariucci Classic.
Like with USA, the Minnesota head coach has faith and trusts the assistants he has surrounded himself.
“When you have experienced guys, it’s easy,” Lucia said about his Gopher assistants, each of whom has spent at least 5 seasons at Minnesota.
It’s a statement Team USA also hopes is true during the 2014 World Juniors.