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Minnesota Hockey: Three Takeaways From the Don Lucia Press Conference

The former coach of the Gophers said some important things

Don Lucia leaves the Minnesota program with his head held high

Don Lucia held a press conference with Mark Coyle Tuesday afternoon to discuss his stepping down from being the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team. If you missed it you can catch the entire press conference below:

Lucia was very articulate throughout and you could tell that this had been on his mind for some time and was not something that was occurring rapidly. From sitting at the press conference and listening to him I had three takeaways from what he had to say that I think deserve additional attention.

This really did seem like Lucia’s idea—not something forced upon him:

From the way that Lucia described what his mind-frame was going into the season and during the season, this really did seem like something that Lucia genuinely thought of and initiated himself. I’m sure the final execution date was on Mark Coyle, but it did not seem like Lucia was blindsided by the decision or disagreed with it. Lucia was adamant that this was his idea and that he and Coyle came to a solution that would work for everyone. Lucia would step down as coach and would get to work out the rest of his contract working on fundraising for the hockey program and the next phase of the Mariucci Arena improvements.

Lucia seemed at ease discussing his decision and there was no edge that can sometimes be present in a situation like this. It could be possible that this was not his call 10% but if so he did an excellent job of hiding his displeasure. Lucia said that he was pretty sure he was ready to step down after this season—even if the Gophers had made the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Frozen Four. He also talked at length on how he wants to be an aide to whomever his replacement is and help him with the transition just like Doug Woog did for him back in 1999.

Lucia stressed that Gophers fans need to embrace the Big Ten for the good of the program:

Lucia was very adamant that Minnesota fans need to accept that the Big Ten Hockey conference is here to stay and that fans need to accept it for the good of the program. He understands that a lot of the apathy is directly related to ticket costs and the Mariucci reseating process that moved a lot of long term season ticket holders from their seats as well. But he was very clear that the Big Ten is one of if not the best conferences in college hockey. The talent level is on par with any of the other conferences and more and more talent is coming into the league every year. The coaching talent is on par with any of the other conferences. Yes the Big Ten got off to a bit of a slow start with some of their marquis members having down years as teams like Penn State were just beginning to grow their program, but its undeniable that the conference is on the rise.

Four Big Ten members made the NCAA Tournament, and had Minnesota not crapped the bed down the stretch it would have been five. People are still mad about the loss of “traditional” rivals like UMD and North Dakota, but they have not even tried to embrace new rivalries beginning. There is no doubt there is definite bad blood brewing between both players and fans of Minnesota and Penn State. That matchup over the next few seasons will only get more intense as the two teams fight for playoff positioning and home ice more and more often. People just need to be willing to give it a shot instead of closing their minds to even the possibility that these teams can be almost as good as once was.

Change happens and is inevitable in college sports. As Lucia recounted in his press conference, someone came up to him at a high school game this winter and told him how much he missed the Old WCHA. To which Lucia replied—which old WCHA? When I played for Notre Dame it was the Minnesota’s and the Michigan’s and Notre Dame and Michigan State. Things change every few years. They are not static. Sure we all loved the atmosphere of the WCHA Final Five in the 2000s—but those days are gone. From a one year experiment it appeared that the Big Ten tournament on the home rinks brought a pretty good atmosphere to the games. It’s not the same—nothing ever will be. But you have to give it a chance to be good. Minnesota fans have to be willing to try and accept it for the good of the program. If you still want to fight it, so be it. But just know that your favorite team is trying to move forward to get back to where it once was, and it’s leaving you behind grasping at history.

The strong Gopher alumni base has to unite under common ground

Lucia did not come out and articulate exactly what he meant by this, but there is no doubt from the whispers and frankly outright groans that he was not a favorite of a certain group of Gopher Hockey alumni. Several alums never accepted him into the club since he was not a fellow alum. Some of his players were not huge fans of him after their playing careers were over. Lucia said that these groups need to come together to help propel the program in the direction it wants to go.

Those sentiments were echoed by former Gopher star Pat Micheletti on KFAN about an hour after Lucia’s press conference. You can hear it here. Micheletti said there are still a certain group of alumni that are still bitter they didn’t get the job when Lucia got it 19 years ago. He said they need to get over it and come together for the good of the program.

This may be tested by Mark Coyle’s choice. If it ends up being a “M-Man”, then I think the alums will fall in line and can be an organized force to propel the program forward. But, if similar conflicts exist behind the scenes like the ones that occurred during the Lucia tenure, there are going to be problems.

You saw it last summer when it appeared Lucia wanted to add former Air Force assistant coach and now Ohio State assistant Steve Miller to his coaching staff. From what has been leaked, apparently the strong group of Gopher hockey alums were not happy Lucia was adding another non-alum to the staff and threw a fit and threatened to withhold donations. Eventually that assistant coach spot would be filled by Gopher alum and former Pittsburgh Penguins scout Scott Bell. That’s not to say Bell did a poor job this season—he did not. But Miller is in charge of the Ohio State penalty kill that was the #1 PK in the nation this season at 89.3%. That would have been nice to have this season no doubt.

Mark Coyle will not have an easy choice to make. It’s probably that given the advantages of the Minnesota program whomever he hires will work out fine in the end. But there will be a lot of internal politics to wade through, egos to massage, and potential land mines he will need to avoid to make sure that when the next Minnesota Gophers hockey coach in announced in a few days weeks, everyone is on the same page and ready to make sure the Gophers are the best program with the best alumni support and the best fanbase they can be. Everyone will need to put something towards the effort if is truly wants to live up to it’s limitless potential.