Before this most recent — and oddest — of college hockey seasons, the winter of 1976-77 was the last one that Don Lucia did not spend either on a rink, behind a bench or in an administrative role at Notre Dame, Alaska, Colorado College and Minnesota.
He spent this winter retired, living in Alaska, and admits he went to Anchorage a few times to catch college hockey games there, because he missed the sport. As of today, Lucia is back in the college hockey world officially as the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner, and throughout the sport, that is being viewed as a good thing.
“College hockey is better with Don Lucia in it, and I think this is a great hire for the CCHA. Don has seen it all in his career, and the knowledge and experience he brings to the league is going to be a big asset as they get up and running,” said Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who won two NCAA titles as an assistant coach under Lucia. “I’m thrilled for him as a friend, and I’m thrilled that college hockey will continue to grow and benefit from his leadership.”
Lucia joins a select group that oversees college hockey's seven conferences. Josh Fenton, commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference that is based in Colorado, said that Lucia is a natural addition to the fraternity.
"I think it's a great hire. We in the NCHC, and I, as one of the commissioners in college hockey, am excited to welcome Don back to college hockey," Fenton said. "Don has been a big, big part of our game for a long time and eventually made the decision to step away from the coaching side. But I know he kept himself involved with the game and got himself in the administrative side at Minnesota for a little bit, so I think he's perfectly suited for this opportunity and he will do well."
When Lucia meets with the other commissioners, he will see a very familiar face across the table in Gordon "Red" Berenson, the long-time Michigan coach who has been hired by the Big Ten in a hockey operations role. Berenson's Wolverines claimed the NCAA title in 1996 by beating Lucia's CC Tigers in overtime in Cincinnati. After Lucia came to Minnesota, his Gophers beat the Wolverines in the Frozen Four semifinals in both 2002 and 2003.
"I have a great relationship with Red, but I also have a really good relationship with all the other commissioners. I reached out to a number of them in this process early on to get a better feel for some of the things they do and how they run their offices," Lucia said. "That's something I feel really good about is not only my relationship with Red, but with all the conference commissioners."
St. Thomas joining?
Asked about a potential eighth member of the current seven-team league, Lucia admitted that he has had conversations with the athletic director at St. Thomas, and that the Tommies would be a fit, although there are several hurdles that need to be cleared before they are playing Division I hockey in the CCHA.
"I think they certainly would be a candidate. They've got a rich tradition academically and athletically," Lucia said, adding that they expect to know soon whether the Tommies' move to Division I across the board will be approved. "I know that in past conversations with (UST athletic director) Phil (Esten), he's pretty positive, so we'll keep our fingers crossed. Anytime you can add a Division I institution to college hockey, I think it's a great day for college hockey."
In addition to his well-established relationship with Berenson, among the coaches in the CCHA, Lucia recruited and coached one of them — Northern Michigan's Grant Potulny — had another as an assistant coach and unsuccessfully tried to recruit a third.
"Obviously Grant played for me and I've been a big fan of his over the years. (Minnesota State coach) Mike Hastings was an assistant coach for me and I still give (Bemidji State coach) Tom Serratore grief because he was my first in-home recruiting visit back in the early '80s when I was trying to get him to come up to Fairbanks to play," Lucia said, joking that he would get revenge 40 years later. "He rejected me back then so maybe I can get even with him now."
Potulny, who scored the overtime-winner for Lucia's Gophers in the 2002 national title game, was also an assistant coach under Lucia for several years prior to running his own program on the Upper Peninsula.
"He's got a PhD in hockey, so he checks off the hockey box," Potulny said. "Going back to all the years working for Don and going to the (annual college hockey coaches') meetings in Florida, when you run a program like Minnesota you're very active in all kinds of decisions and all kinds of conversations. As much as you want to put Minnesota first, I always felt Don wanted to do what was good for college hockey. So I think he understands the landscape of where our seven institutions are, and he's going to be an incredible resource for us."
Asked about Long Island University, which will be searching for a conference home, Lucia said that the CCHA would be best staying within its geographical footprint, which currently stretches from Bowling Green in northern Ohio to Bemidji State in northern Minnesota.
(Note to readers: Welcome to Rinkytown, the new blog from The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Gophers, Big Ten Hockey and a considerable additional grab bag of things involving ice, skates, sticks and a puck. You won’t find Rinkytown on a map, just like you won’t find the real Hockeytown in Michigan. Rinkytown is somewhere in the vicinity of Dinkytown, where the coffee is hot, the popcorn is fresh and a stick salute at center ice comes after a sweep, always accompanied by the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." We hope you enjoy what you find here. Rah!)