Championship Game Coaches Provide Stark Contrast
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
PHILADELPHIA The two coaches in this national title game couldn't be more different, apart from the fact that both are very, very good at their jobs.
On the one hand there is Don Lucia, who this weekend has struck one as being not unlike your friend's cool dad. He's been thoughtful, loquacious, friendly, empathetic. He's answered questions with an honesty and openness not typically seen in coaches these days, so influenced have they been by the Bill Belichick ethos that their job is to coach and coach only, and not suffer fools in the media gladly, with the obvious caveat that the non-foolish question he encounters is very rare indeed. In an era in which saying nothing is very much the norm, Lucia has said something, over and over.
On whether he derives any pleasure from having beaten his team's historical archrival in such amazing and grand and unexpected fashion: "You have to enjoy the victories. I've been on the other side, lost to North Dakota in the regional final in overtime, WCHA Final Five in overtime. So I've been on each side of it. It's obviously elation when you win, and depressing when you lose."
And on the nerve-wracking wait for the game-winner to stand up under replay: "To be honest, I thought it was a good goal because I thought I saw the ref pointing before I heard the horn. And he came over and said it was a goal. But you don't know. You feel lucky. You feel relieved. Here you take a penalty in the last two minutes of a game that's tied 1-1, but the penalty killers did a good job."
Real answers, real emotions. A coach whose team had been taken to the limit and needed the most insane timing and bounces to advance to the national title game for the fourth time in his career, readily letting himself breathe a heavy sigh for all the world to see. Speaking of empathy for his professional nemesis and that man's charges, knowing how the gut punch feels.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is Rick Bennett, the interloper to this Frozen Four in terms of coaching experience, who already knocked off the greatest college bench boss of all time this weekend, and seems less like the "cool dad" and much more like the scary one.
His team has been excellent this year and is certainly the hottest in the country (granted there are just two left at this point, so that might not come off as the praise intended) and indeed has laid waste to the vast majority of opponents in all aspects of the game for more or less the entirety of Bennett's head coaching career. And his press conferences are studies in reticence. He says nothing, because he doesn't really have to if he doesn't want to. And boy does he ever not want to.
On preparing for and facing Boston College's top line, perhaps the best seen in college hockey over the last several years at least: "We faced some pretty good lines within our league and there's some very dangerous players just like the Boston College players. That's not taking away anything from that top line. But we faced a lot of top lines and I think our league prepared us well."
On managing emotions and expectations for his team having reach this point for the first time in team history: "They're a pretty level-headed group. And I guess we're just going to have to see. This is the furthest our program has ever been. So we're going to have to learn basically through this. But what's important now is those guys go back, watch a game on TV, get a meal in them, rest up and get ready for tomorrow's practice."
In much the same vein as his team's style, there's not a lot of flash, and there's a lot of economy. The team doesn't do any more or less than it needs to in order to pull out a win, and the coach doesn't say anything more or less than he need to in order to convey a point and be not-discourteous. A few sentences, something resembling the answer to the general thrust of a question, and that's all.
Their players also bring this kind of style to their pressers: Minnesota's kids laughed and joked throughout, Union's mostly gave the kind of rote "We just need to play our games and not worry about what they do" answers you'd expect.
It's important to clarify that neither is better or worse than the other. These coaches don't owe the media anything. Bennett, one supposes, could talk for hours and hours about the Xs and Os of this sport, and there are almost certainly days when Lucia has little of note to say. It's just interesting to see how they handle them.
Dave Hakstol said after the loss to Minnesota that the thing about this time of year is there are no secrets between teams. Everyone has played in every situation, which has allowed for significant scouting. Union, for example, won't do things appreciably differently in this coming national title game against a team as historic as the Gophers than they did in an early October game against Lake Superior State. Hopefully for Bennett they do it better, and with greater efficiency, but roughly the same at the core of it. This is also true of the Gophers and Lucia, who will need perhaps their best game of the season if they want to win another national title. And they do.
That's interesting too. These coaches approach their jobs so differently in some ways, but in the end have to prepare their teams for games in the same way most of their peers do. Lucia has been at this for a while and knows how things generally go at this level. Bennett is in uncharted territory, personally and for his program that he has brought to national dominance. That they're doing the same things now, as ever, speaks to why both have had so much success.