Family first for opposing Lucias when Gophers, Irish face off


Thanks to a scheduling quirk, Minnesota coach Don Lucia got a chance to personally scout Notre Dame’s hockey team last weekend when the Fighting Irish swept host UConn, 2-1 and 8-2.

FRIDAY ON ASN: Minnesota (2-3, 0-0 Big Ten) at Notre Dame (3-1-2, 2-0 Hockey East), 7:35 p.m. (click logo for local listings)

It was a fortuitous schedule glitch, really, because Lucia’s main objective for being at the games was to support his son, senior forward Mario Lucia, a 2011 third-round pick of the Minnesota Wild and the last of the longtime coach’s sons playing college hockey.

The Gophers had the weekend off and Notre Dame played a Saturday-Sunday series, so Lucia flew out after last Friday’s practice to catch the games in Hartford and Brooklyn, N.Y. and got the rare chance to be a fan watching his son playing college hockey.

What he saw was a deep, talented Irish team with all 10 goals being scored by 10 players and a team that ran its penalty-killing streak to 21 without a goal. Mario notched assists in each contest.

Tonight, he’ll have a different perspective when the Gophers travel to Notre Dame to take on the 18th-ranked Fighting Irish at 7:35 p.m. ET on ASN.

“When we play he’s No. 22 and not my son,” Lucia said during weekly press conference.  “He’s a guy on the other team. We have to get in the shot lanes when he’s shooting. We have to body him. He’s not my son during the game, he’s 22.”

As much as Lucia wants us to believe it, it’s not quite true.

For starters, Don Lucia is a Notre Dame alum. He scored seven goals and added 23 assists while playing in 124 games for the Irish from 1977-81. This weekend ends the four-year contract between the two schools. Next year, Minnesota returns to playing rival North Dakota.

ASN-Don-LuciaAnd then there’s Mario. The 6-3, 206-pound left winger’s seven points tie for second on the team. Last year he led the Irish with 21 goals and played in all 40 games.

Prior to tonight’s game, Mario said he’ll most likely get a text from his dad just like he does every night. He always offers tips and encouragement, he said.

“Every game he’s watched me he gives me some little thing to work on or encouragement,” Mario said. “With him it’s always been family first. He’s a good father and good coach for me. I talk to my parents every night and that won’t change.”

Most of the Lucia family will be in the stands to see the teams in somewhat of a role reversal. Though Minnesota owns a 4-1 record against the Irish over the past three seasons and has won four consecutive conference titles, Notre Dame could be tabbed the favorite this weekend.

The Fighting Irish are unbeaten over their past four games, including back-to-back overtime ties against NCHC preseason favorite Minnesota-Duluth. Besides balanced scoring, they put nine NHL draft picks on the ice. One of them, goalie Cal Petersen, was named the Hockey East defensive player of the week and is a 2013 fifth-round pick (129th overall) of the Buffalo Sabres.

“That is a good team, better than they were last year,” Don Lucia said. “They’re deeper up front and scoring more goals. They added two freshmen defensemen who have good stick skills and skate well and Cal is as good of goalie as there is in college hockey.”

Minnesota spent its off week working on puck movement, particularly out of its own zone. The biggest problem facing the Gophers so far is inexperience playing together. Minnesota has had two off weekends already, and with 10 freshmen Lucia said he would have preferred to come into this series with more game experience for his team.

Still, it’s the Gophers and their roster is dotted with 12 NHL draft picks — tied for the most in college hockey. Over the past four seasons Minnesota has the most wins (105) and the best winning percentage (.690) in the nation. Freshman goalie Eric Scheirhorn is coming off an impressive showing two weeks ago against Northeastern, where he stopped 48 shots in two games and recorded his first shutout. He ranks second among all Big Ten goaltenders with a 2.22 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.

“It’s the Gophers,” Mario Lucia said. “We have to be smart, play fast and be physical. We’re an older team and should be stronger. We have to get bodies on them and get to the net to have a successful game.”

Notre Dame’s Mario Lucia (top) and his father, Minnesota coach Don Lucia, during his Notre Dame playing days. (Photos courtesy of Fighting Irish Media)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu