Nearly 30 years ago, Don Lucia was tasked with saving one of college hockey’s storied programs, and did so in spectacular fashion. A little over 20 years ago, Lucia took over another legendary program and led it to the pinnacle of the game. So for him, running an entire college hockey league is just the next challenge.
On Wednesday, June 17, Lucia was named commissioner of the reborn Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which is scheduled to begin play with seven teams in the fall of 2021. The former head coach at Alaska, Colorado College and the University of Minnesota is expected to take the reins of the CCHA within the next month.
"I'm really looking forward to the challenge," Lucia said, recalling his first contact with former St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz, who led the search for a commissioner.
"Morris called me back in March and wanted to know if I would have interest and why I would have interest. I said very simply that the game has been very good to me and my family over the years ... I looked at it as a way to give back to the game.
"An old mentor of mine, Mike Sertich, who was a longtime coach at UMD and actually was one of my high school teachers and coaches, too, always said we have to take care of the game. That's one of my goals is to help take care of the game of college hockey in these unique times."
The new conference takes the name of the Michigan-based league that existed from 1971-2013. It was reborn a year ago when seven teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State University-Mankato and Northern Michigan — announced their intention to leave the conference and form their own.
That move leaves Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage in the WCHA at the end of the coming college season, and the future of that league and those three programs is uncertain at best.
The St. Paul-based University of St. Thomas has applied to the NCAA to elevate their sports programs from Division III to Division I. If the request is granted, the Tommies are expected to be invited to become the CCHA’s eighth team. Lucia acknowledged that UST is a candidate for CCHA membership and said they are looking forward to seeing what the NCAA decides.
Lucia, 61, is originally from Grand Rapids, Minn., where he played defense on state champion hockey teams as a sophomore and junior. After four years of college hockey at Notre Dame, Lucia went to Fairbanks, Alaska, to be a college assistant coach. In 1987, he got his first head coaching job at the University of Alaska (then known as Alaska-Fairbanks) and ran the Nanooks program for six years.
In 1993, Lucia took over a Colorado College program that had been mediocre — at best — for 30 years and was on the brink of extinction, with their arena being torn down. In his first season, Lucia pulled off one of the great miracles in college hockey history, taking the Tigers from the cellar of the WCHA to a league title in a year.
By 1996 — while playing 20 minutes from campus as a rental tenant at the Air Force Academy — Lucia had CC in the NCAA title game, where they fell to Michigan in overtime. He won three WCHA titles with the Tigers, and had them in the NCAA tournament in five of his six seasons in Colorado Springs.
When Doug Woog stepped down from his post running Gophers hockey in 1999, the U of M came calling, and Lucia moved his family back to Minnesota. He needed three seasons to hang a national championship banner in Minneapolis, when Lucia’s Gophers rallied for a dramatic overtime win over Maine in the 2002 Frozen Four title game in St. Paul.
A year later, with freshman wunderkind Thomas Vanek leading the way, Lucia’s Gophers repeated, becoming college hockey’s first back-to-back champions in more than 30 years.
“The word I would use is ‘builder.’ He helped build Fairbanks, goes in and does what he does at CC and comes to Minnesota and wins their last two national championships. Show me somebody more battle tested,” said Minnesota State University-Mankato coach Mike Hastings, who was an assistant coach with Lucia’s 2008-09 Gophers team. “You need a leader. You need somebody that understands the multitude of levels that you have to have a handle on in a one-sport conference. I think we’re moving in a really good direction with Don.”
Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore noted that Lucia has been a coach at schools that have had sports at the Division I (Minnesota), Division II (Alaska) and Division III (Colorado College) levels, was on the NCAA tournament committee when there was an eight-team playoff field, a 12-team playoff field and the current 16-team playoff field, and has offered input on many college hockey rules changes over the past four decades.
"I don't think we could've picked a better guy than Don Lucia," Serratore said.
While the Gophers did not win a third NCAA title in Lucia’s 19 seasons, he led them back to the 2014 championship game, and the program won a NCAA-record six consecutive conference titles from 2012-2017.
He retired from coaching at the end of the 2018 season as the program’s all-time leader with 457 wins. A year ago, he and wife, Joyce, moved permanently to their home near the Kenai River in southeastern Alaska, but they maintain a house in the Twin Cities for frequent visits with their four children and five grandchildren.
Lucia said he will be based in Minnesota during the college hockey season and plans to hit the road to games every weekend, just as he did in his days as a recruiter. He officially begins his new position on July 1.