Nov. 8, 2013
Notre Dame, Ind. – By Pete LaFleur (’90)
Youth hockey in the state of Minnesota is a way of life, a textbook sporting subculture that stretches through generations. It involves the devoted following and support of entire families, while touching the community fabric in widespread ways.
“Hockey is to Minnesota as football is to Texas,” says 1970s Notre Dame hockey alum Kevin Nugent, who was thrilled to see his son Kevin, Jr., play for the Irish from 2008-12.
“Hockey is what enables Minnesotans to survive the cold winters. It is our passion, it is who we are, and it is our love for the outdoors. It is the pure joy of skating with your friends for hours upon hours on frozen ponds, or on well-lit outdoor hockey rinks that seem to pop up around every other corner.”
“Every young hockey player in Minnesota grows up wanting to play in front of thousands of fans. Entire towns turn out in support of their high school hockey teams. It’s all what makes Minnesota the Hockey State USA. Hockey is the heartbeat of Minnesota.”
One such classic Minnesota hockey family is that of Don Lucia, his wife Joyce and their four children, Ali, Jessie, Tony and Mario. But their story goes much deeper – much farther (thousands of miles) – with a series of fortuitous events that landed the Lucia family where it is today.
“Growing up with the Lucia name, we were always reminded never to do anything to embarrass the family,” says Tony Lucia, who played for Don at the University of Minnesota from 2006-10.
“My father coaches a program that is under the microscope of the media and that microscope was indirectly on our family as well. We were reminded of this quite often.”
“All one has to do is walk into the Xcel Energy Center during the state hockey tournament to see the passion we have as a state for hockey. It is a sold-out building that has the same ooo’s and aww’s as a Stanley Cup final would bring. Ask NHL players who played in the Minnesota state tournament to reflect on their best hockey memories, and the state tourney experience will always be right at the top of the list.”
Don Lucia, of course, is in his 15th season as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team, following six seasons at Colorado College preceded by 12 years coaching in the Great White North. No, we’re not talking about Canada … more like Alaska, where Lucia’s dozen years included six seasons as the head coach at Alaska Fairbanks.
The Lucia family story takes center stage this weekend at Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, as Don leads his top-ranked Gophers team into town for a two-game set versus fourth-ranked Notre Dame (Fri. at 8:05 ET, then Sat. at 7:05). The Lucia’s youngest, Mario, is a highly regarded sophomore left wing for the Irish, a player who grew up around the Minnesota hockey program and whose NHL rights are held by the home-state Minnesota Wild.
“Growing up in Minnesota, hockey is engraved in you and playing for the Gophers is every young kids’ dream,” says Mario, whose Irish squad lost 4-1 at Minnesota last January, only a couple days after he had returned from winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Russia with Team USA. “I saw from my brother’s experience that playing for your father is tough for everyone. But I’ve been able to create my own identity here at Notre Dame, it’s a special place and I love it here.”
At the end of the day, most Minnesota hockey fans understood Mario Lucia’s college decision. Now, if he has chosen to play for the “other ND,” the hated University of North Dakota … that, of course, would have been another story.
Forged on the Iron Range
Don Lucia is a native of Minnesota’s “Iron Range” in the state’s northeast corner, a region shaped like an arrowhead and known for its preponderance of iron ore mines. A native of Grand Rapids, Minn. (pop. 10,000-plus) – the third-largest city in the Iron Range, behind Duluth and Hibbing – Lucia was an all-state football linebacker and hockey defenseman while starring for Grand Rapids High School. He helped GRHS win two hockey state titles and was all set to play college football at North Dakota State, when his life took its first crucial zig-zag.
“Back in my day, kids committed to colleges a lot later than they do today and in my case I had to make a decision whether to play college football or hockey,” recalls Lucia, who made his football commitment to North Dakota State in February of his senior year.
“But things changed when I got a call from Ric Schafer offering me a hockey scholarship to Notre Dame. You need to understand, I was one of those kids who grew up watching those Sunday morning Notre Dame football replays with Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung. I had not even come on a visit to Notre Dame, but I was quickly sold and changed my college plans.”
For the uninitiated, Lucia – from a devout, Italian immigrant Catholic family – is referencing the famous 1960 and `70s replay telecasts that brought Notre Dame football to households throughout the nation, decades before the NBC contract or ESPN were even an idea in the mind of TV executives.
Schafer had been Lefty Smith’s assistant coach at Notre Dame before later accepting an offer to direct a struggling Division II program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Lucia was graduating in May of 1981 at the time when Schafer was getting ready for his first season in the (extremely) upper northwest. With an uncertain future ahead of him in professional hockey, most likely in the minor leagues, Lucia bypassed a postgraduate playing career to become Schafer’s assistant at UAF.
While in Fairbanks, Lucia met his future wife Joyce and the couple married in June of 1983, with their honeymoon travels including a visit to the Notre Dame campus. It’s fairly safe to assume that the pair never would have crossed paths if Don had gone on to pro hockey, rather than coming to UAF with Schafer.
“I was not very worldly-wise and had rarely been out of Fairbanks,” laughs Joyce Lucia, an Alaskan native, as was her father before her. “And I was anything but a hockey fan. They played in this big bubble we called the beluga, or white whale. It was 10 degrees warmer than outside – we were cold enough as it was in Alaska, why go to a hockey game to be cold for a couple hours?”
After four seasons as an assistant at UAF, Lucia spent two seasons as an assistant at Alaska Anchorage, followed by the six seasons as head coach back at UAF (1987-1993) – thanks to another ominous occurrence, when Schafer left to succeed the retiring Smith back at Notre Dame.
Schafer’s departure opened the door for Lucia and he promptly made his mark as a Division I head coach (UAF had moved up a classification a couple years earlier). That success led to an offer to direct the program at Colorado College, where Lucia’s continued success ultimately landed him back in his native Minnesota, as head coach of the Gophers.
Back to the Land of Lakes
Don Lucia’s life had come full-circle back to where it started, in Minnesota, when he accepted the head coaching position with the Gophers in 1999. He was about to spend the start of the new century in the nation’s most-crazed, hockey-loving state.
All four of the Lucia children were born in Fairbanks, although the family made the move to Colorado Springs when Mario was only five days old. The bulk of Tony and Mario’s youth hockey days ended up being spent in Minnesota, as young players in their own right, separated by six years, but also as fans of their dad’s teams. That experience included cheering on the Gophers during national championships won in 2002 and ’03.
Tony Lucia’s dream always had been to play for the Gophers, and to play for his dad. Father and son knew there would be some challenges with such a family dynamic, and those ups-and-downs mirrored an uneven stretch for the program as a whole.
“There was pros and cons with Tony playing for me and I felt there were times I held him back,” admits Don Lucia. “With lineup and power-play choices, I probably slotted him down further than he deserved.”
The Lucia family also overcame a major health scare in late 2008, when Don was beset with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory organ condition. The effects of the illness altered his daily life for the next 18 months and the Gophers ultimately ended up missing the NCAAs for three straight seasons – before rebounding in impressive fashion over the past couple of years.
Shortly after Tony’s college hockey career ended in 2010, Mario was finalizing his own college choice. The decision took him away from home, but still to somewhere that was familiar and comforting to his father Don: his own alma mater, Notre Dame.
Mario Lucia’s college career has taken him away from all the external pressures – extensive media coverage, rabid fans, plus bonus pressure from being the coach’s son – inherent with the Minnesota hockey program. Although all in the family knew the benefits if Mario had played for the Gophers, it’s clear that all parties concerned have embraced a refreshingly different college hockey experience for the family’s youngest child.
“I really wanted to see Mario forge his own path and I was pleased to see that Notre Dame became his choice,” says the proud papa Don. “Notre Dame was the perfect fit, because of the school, including the academics and religious aspect, and all that the hockey program offers, including the coaches and the new facility.
“Part of me would love to be coaching Mario, but a greater part of me is content in simply being his dad during this important stage of his life. He has great coaches here at Notre Dame and they don’t have to worry about the name on the back of his jersey like we would have been faced with at Minnesota.”
Raised on Personality
During their early years as a family, the Lucia clan broke down their ranks based on hair color – “the lighties and the darkies,” explains Joyce. She was aligned with fellow fair-haired family members Jessie and Mario, while Don was in the opposite camp with Ali and Tony.
The youngest child in a larger family often forges a distinct identity. For much of his life, Mario Lucia was relegated to tagging along for his older siblings’ sporting events. His mother admits they may have “babied” their youngest child, possibly making up for those years when he was waiting in the wings.
But Mario always was anything but a background bystander, even from his early days.
“Our old family priest, who married me and Don and baptized all our kids, put it best when he said that Mario was full of piss and vinegar,” laughs Joyce Lucia. “He was more prone to harass people and do little pranks, getting into mischief – more of a free spirit.”
While Mario, in the words of his father, “definitely marched to the beat of a different drummer,” he was driven to achieve his own goals, in his own way.
“I have to give so much credit for Mario’s success to his mom,” says the appreciative husband and father. “With the older kids during their youth sports careers, Joyce often had to stay back with Mario, but she has been able to be involved extensively throughout Mario’s youth hockey career and now at Notre Dame.”
Tooting His Own Horn?
During his past three seasons of competitive hockey – first as a member of the Canadian national champion Penticton Vees of the BCHL and now at Notre Dame – Mario Lucia has toted along an extra item, in addition to his hockey gear. A devoted trumpet player since the sixth grade, he even has taken a one-credit elective course at Notre Dame, receiving advanced trumpet lessons to keep his music skills sharp.
Don used to joke with Mario, by telling him if he was not good enough to play Division I hockey he could always play in the pep band – just to get his goat,” recalls Joyce.
Mario’s trumpet-playing skills even have earned him a unique nickname from his Notre Dame teammates – “Loochie Armstrong” (a wordplay combining Lucia and Louie Armstrong) – and his singing talents likewise have been a big hit during the team’s long bus rides.
Moments after raving about Mario’s trumpet skills, Joyce Lucia unwittingly noted that “Mario has never been one to toot his own horn” – classically unaware of the double meaning behind those words.
“Mario always has been a very humble person and never realized his skill set in hockey was so good until entering the recruiting process,” says Joyce Lucia, who also notes the benefits of her son staying with his non-athlete roommate Owen for a second year.
“He is a mature kid who has grown as an individual. He already has a great niche here at Notre Dame. At the end of the school year, he was home for only a week or so and was eager to go back to campus. He missed his teammates and just being here.”
Business in the Front, Party in the Back
Don Lucia’s coaching style has mellowed over the years, a far cry from the early days in Fairbanks when he was known as the Tin Man “because people thought he had no heart,” explains Joyce, matter-of-factly.
“But there have been several keys to Don’s success over the years and one is that he can compartmentalize his emotions from the games or practices and does not bring the work home with him. I am the scorekeeper in our relationship Don is not. He also has a great ability to connect and work with all sorts of personalities.”
If you have seen some older photos of Don Lucia, even from his early days as Minnesota coach, you will notice a distinctive change in hairstyle. Gone is the classic hockey mullet – “business in the front, party in the back” – and now replaced with a distinctive, tightly cropped salt and pepper look.
“I didn’t even know what a mullet was, that was just his hair,” says Joyce Lucia, who usually laughs with most of her comments. “He hair used the stick up funny so that’s the way he wore it, but it’s funny to see those photos now.”
Former Notre Dame roommate and defensive partner John Friedmann remembers those days of the mullets. He also recalls envisioning his fellow Keenan Hall resident one day being a successful coach.
“I always had the sense that Don’s best destiny was going to be in the coaching profession,” says Friedmann. “He has the perfect disposition for a hockey coach at such an elite level. He handles the pressure and criticism extremely well and has a wonderful sense of humor.”
“Don and Joyce make a great team and that is the main reason for his success and longevity in coaching. Don is one of the most honest, humble and approachable people I have ever met. My life is better for having been around him and Minnesota is fortunate to have a native son guiding their hockey program.”
Don and Mario Lucia’s close father-son relationship over the past couple years have been just that: loving father, loving son, no coaching, and very little hockey.
“We try to keep the relationship, as much as we can, father-son,” says the Lucia dad, whose associate head coach, Mike Guentzel, saw his own son, Ryan, recently play for Notre Dame.
“I don’t coach Mario, he has great coaches here who do that. I just want to make sure he is doing well and maturing and growing as a person. Our talk’s center more on how the day is going, how was practice, how is school. I will give him a couple words of advice. I want to be his dad, not his coach.”
As Notre Dame alum, Don Lucia has relished the chance to reconnect with his alma mater, living vicariously through his son while making up for lost time. Over the past three decades, with much of those years spent in Alaska and Colorado, Lucia had limited chances for returning to Notre Dame.
Thanks to convenient melding of the Notre Dame and Minnesota schedules, Don Lucia has been able to attend each of Mario’s past four games with the Irish. A year ago, the beaming father was there at Joe Louis Arena, decked out in his son’s jersey and a Notre Dame hat, cheering on Mario’s team as they won the final CCHA Championship against Michigan.
Family First … And Last
The Lucia family connections in Minnesota include Don’s father, Mario (his grandson’s namesake), a state hall-of-fame high school football coach who passed away in 2011. An army veteran and strict disciplinarian, he was the “original” Mario Lucia.
“My own father’s coaching philosophies were based on Vince Lombardi’s commitment to excellence,” says Don Lucia. “My dad always preached to bring people up to your level, don’t compromise and stoop down to others’ levels when making choices in life.”
The Lucia family now is scattered throughout several states, but the wonders of modern technology keep them close. “I talk to my parents and my siblings, by phone or Skype, basically every day,” says Mario. “I don’t know too many people who do that. I just feel blessed to have such a close and supportive family.”
Tony Lucia, now working for the international conglomerate APi Group, recently spent seven weeks at a leadership training conference in Chicago and was able to make several side trips to Notre Dame for football and hockey games.
“My brother Tony always was my hero and is my favorite Gopher player of all time, so it’s great how close we have grown over the past few years and now are best friends,” says the appreciate younger Lucia brother.
“I always had great respect for Tony and how he played, his work ethic and heart. He was an awesome two-way player; not the biggest but he could crush people. He earned everything he got and his teammates and the Minnesota fans really looked up to him. He made the right decision playing for the Gophers and I respect him so much for that.”
Joyce Lucia has become something of a regular at the Compton Center, usually making the 500-mile drive from Minneapolis for Mario’s games and steadily becoming a recognizable face around town. Mario’s siblings all regret not being able to attend this weekend’s “Family Feud.” Tony will be watching on TV/online while Ali, the family’s oldest, is occupied with her own TV studio role as a member of the Dallas Stars broadcast crew. Jessie – volleyball All-American during her collegiate days at Concordia University – is a couple weeks away from delivering Don and Joyce their second grandchild.
Family matchups like this always produce the same questions? Who are you rooting for? (and hopefully it’s not in some goody jersey split between the two teams!).
Don Lucia did his own informal polling. He knows who Tony will be rooting for, but the other voting blocks don’t look too promising.
“Joyce has told people she is sleeping with the enemy this weekend,” jokes Don. “The mother-son dynamics are probably more important. Like most mothers, she is going to be rooting for her son. She is not using my tickets this weekend, she is using Mario’s.”
But what about Jessie’s sweet little two-year-old daughter Gianna? Surely she will be rooting for grandpa’s team, right?
“Mario has made quite an impression on Gianna. She loves him and talks about him all of the time – she’s one of his biggest fans,” says Jessie Lucia Bray.
“My dad asked her if she was going to cheer for grandpa or uncle Mario and she replied Uncle Mario. She will be wearing her #22 Irish jersey. As for me, I’m hoping for a tie on both nights.
Mario shouldn’t have a problem with that, should he? After all, you know the old saying that “a tie is like kissing your sister.”