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CCHA commissioner Lucia dishes on league’s first year, Mason Cup finish

Don Lucia hasn’t had many moments since leaving coaching where he felt like he was back behind the bench. But that was the case after the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Mason Cup Championship in March.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia
Don Lucia coaches Minnesota in a March 2016 game against Ohio State at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Lucia has been commissioner of the CCHA since June 2020.
John Autey / Pioneer Press

BEMIDJI — Don Lucia hasn’t had many moments since leaving coaching where he felt like he was back behind the bench.

But that was the case after the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Mason Cup Championship in March between the Bemidji State men’s hockey team and Minnesota State in Mankato.

“After that game, I drove back to my place in the Twin Cities and I felt like I coached the game,” said Lucia, the league’s commissioner. “Because I couldn't go to sleep that night. … I'm up till two or three in the morning. I can't wind down from everything that happened.

Lucia’s call to restart the game after reviewing additional angles of MSU forward Josh Groll’s initial game-winning goal drew ire from some sectors of the college hockey community and praise from others. But if presented with the same situation again, Lucia wouldn’t change much.

“It was unique,” Lucia said. “If I had to do it over again, I would do it the same way, other than I wish we could have made an announcement to the fans at the game (about) what was going on at that time. Not waited until we had actually looked at the review.”

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The Beavers and Mavericks shake hands after what they thought was the end of the CCHA Mason Cup Championship game on Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Mankato. The game later resumed after the winning goal was disallowed.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

He jokingly blamed Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore for putting him in a difficult position, as Serratore was instrumental in showing Lucia the video of the play and getting him to initiate a review.

“It's all Tom’s fault, because he came across and showed me the video,” Lucia said tongue in cheek. “So if he wouldn't have done that, then we wouldn't have been in that situation.”

On the whole, the man in charge thinks the league’s first year couldn’t have been much more positive. The conference established itself as a sizable player in college hockey by sending two teams to the NCAA Tournament, including Minnesota State, which reached the national championship.

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“In a lot of ways, I don't think it could have gone any better, other than Minnesota State would have won the national title,” Lucia said. “What I was really happy about is that for all of our teams, you can play as a recruit in the CCHA, you can play for a national championship, you can win a Hobey Baker.”

Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay took home the Hobey Baker Award this past season, legitimizing Lucia’s claim. And though Minnesota State carried the flag for the conference most notably, Lucia was also pleased with Michigan Tech joining them in the NCAA Tournament.

“We want this league that's going to be driven by the top of the league and not the bottom of the league,” Lucia said. “Because at the end of the day for us, it's putting teams in the NCAA Tournament and giving them every resource that they have to be successful at that time of the year.”

He noted that the now-defunct WCHA sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament during its final season in 2020-21 – Bemidji State, Lake Superior State and Minnesota State. All three are now in the CCHA.

“That's ultimately what we want,” Lucia said. “We just want a thriving league.”

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The Mavericks celebrate after confirming their 2-1 overtime win in the CCHA Mason Cup Championship game on Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Mankato.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Remote control

Early in the league’s relaunch, Lucia and the CCHA staff made the decision to forego a central office. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and it made little sense to spend money on an office no one would use for a while.

“As it turned out, we elected not to have a league office,” Lucia said. “Why pay for rent in this day and age during COVID? It’s worked out well. We have two people on the west side of the league and two people on the east side of the league.”

Director of officiating Kevin Langseth and PR director Dominic Hennig live in Michigan, while Lucia and assistant commissioner for operations Dean Thibodeau reside in Minnesota. That is, unless Lucia elects to go even farther west.

“I live half the year in Alaska and half the year in the Twin Cities,” said Lucia, who had coaching stints at Alaska Fairbanks from 1987-1993 and Minnesota from 1999-2018.

The benefits of remote work come in especially handy during the offseason, but Lucia maintains a presence inside the CCHA’s footprint while the season is in full swing.

“During the season, I’m basically hunkered down in the Twin Cities,” Lucia said.

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Moving forward

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The potential game-winning goal is reviewed by CCHA officials while Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore and Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings look on after the Mason Cup was awarded prematurely to the Mavericks on Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Mankato.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

As the CCHA enters year two, Lucia is juggling a few different priorities. He must focus in part on integrating new member Augustana, which will become the ninth team in the conference starting in the 2023-24 season.

But collectively, Lucia simply wants to improve upon the gains the CCHA has already made in a short span of time.

“Just try to build upon it and just assist in any way we can as we move forward,” Lucia said. “Obviously, we took a big step with Augustana during the past week. I think they’ll be a good member. So it's kind of helping Augustana over the next couple of years as they build their brand and build their facility and start playing. And just continue to build on what we've done this past year trying to represent the CCHA across the country.”

That will include a change to the replay protocol as the league tries to avoid another situation like the one after the Mason Cup .

“We're going to make sure that, for all of our venues, we have a snapshot of every camera,” Lucia said. “The referees have that when they go in there and they know what they're looking at. The other thing we're going to do is, (after an) overtime goal, no matter what, the referees are going to go in and look at that overtime goal in the playoffs to make sure that they can talk through it with the replay official at that point in time, rather than just having the replay official radio down.”

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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