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Question Looms on Don Lucia Return

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March 20, 2018

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Is Don Lucia going to resign, or soon be told to move on as Gophers men’s hockey coach? A University of Minnesota source told Sports Headliners recently he didn’t know if Lucia will be back next season.

Lucia’s future has been the subject of speculation among media and fans all winter. Randy Johnson’s Star Tribune story Sunday said Gopher athletic director Mark Coyle wouldn’t confirm last week whether Lucia will return. A GopherHole.com fan poll earlier this month reported 84 percent favored dismissing the coach, with 16 percent voting to retain him. While talking with several hockey sources in recent weeks, none dismissed the possibility of Lucia’s 19th season being his last.

Minnesota’s record of 19-17-2 (10-12-2 in the Big Ten) wasn’t deserving of an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Two of the last three years the Gophers haven’t qualified for the 16-team tourney that results in four schools qualifying for the Frozen Four in early April and ends with a national champion.

Mark Coyle (photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications)

Coyle and staff members are concerned about fan apathy. Seeing the vast number of empty seats this season at 3M Arena at Mariucci has been startling for a program referred to in the past as “Pride on Ice.” Tickets that either aren’t sold or go unused represent lost revenue to the Athletic Department. Apathy impacts multiple revenue streams including parking, concessions, arena signage and sponsorships.

“There’s concern right now with the lack of interest in Gopher hockey,” former U captain Casey Hankinson told Sports Headliners yesterday. “That’s more troubling to me than whether they make the postseason, or don’t make the postseason. Of course we always want that to be the case, but the old saying ‘Pride on Ice’ doesn’t seem to be there. I think all of us need to figure out how we get that back.”

Lost revenue isn’t something administrators can take casually in the financially challenged Athletic Department. The 25 sports with over 700 male and female student-athletes are highly dependent on just three financially profitable programs—football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.

The Athletic Department knows the transition of Minnesota from the WCHA to the Big Ten Conference in 2013 was and continues to be unpopular with Gopher fans. Rivalries were impacted and scheduling of games, times, and TV coverage has become less attractive to many fans.

“…Games used to be on TV like clockwork every Friday and Saturday night,” Hankinson said. “Same time, same channel. Easy. Now they (the Gophers) are just too hard to find. There are just too many other things that are on top of people’s minds to go try to find them.”

The Gophers might have the highest priced tickets in college hockey and sometimes aren’t delivering a product justifying the cost. A program accustomed to competing for national championships hasn’t won an NCAA title since 2003. The Gophers’ record this season was two games over .500. A year ago Minnesota finished three games over .500.

It’s a grind being a head college hockey coach and at 59 maybe Lucia will ponder in the days ahead if he has had enough. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota native has been a head coach dating back to his start in 1987 at Alaska-Fairbanks where he stayed for six seasons before moving on to Colorado College in 1993. His first season with the Gophers was 1999-2000. Along the way he’s made a lot of friends and earned a reputation as an outstanding coach and classy person.

Lucia has one season remaining on a contract that officially ends April 30, 2019. That’s not a tenable spot for any coach when he or she deals with recruiting athletes and answering questions about a program’s future. Coyle can dismiss Lucia “without just cause” with 90 days prior written notice, according to the coach’s contract, and the University must pay a $315,000 buyout. It appears no final decision has been made by the University about Lucia who received a contract extension from Coyle in October of 2016.

Lucia is Minnesota’s all-time winningest coach with 457 victories. His 2002 and 2003 teams won consecutive national championships. His teams have won eight regular season conference titles and four postseason championships. He is a four-time conference coach of the year.

This past season ended badly for the Gophers who lost four games on consecutive weekends to Penn State, placing their NCAA Tournament hopes in some jeopardy. Then a couple of days ago the most improbable of developments occurred when six other teams won games that ended Minnesota’s hopes of qualifying for the tournament.

The surprise news about no postseason opportunity added to conversations about the program’s future. Lucia’s future is reportedly discussed even at Northern Michigan where fans are worried about losing Grant Potulny. The former Gopher captain and assistant coach under Lucia led the Wildcats to their most wins since 2006 this winter.

If Coyle decides to make a change it seems likely with the Gophers’ great hockey tradition there will be a push to hire someone with ties to the program like Potulny. Longtime assistant Mike Guentzel, who also is a former Gopher captain, will surely be considered, too, if there is a change. But for now it’s unknown as to who coaches Minnesota hockey next season and beyond.

Whether it is Lucia, or someone else, expectations will rightfully be high. “This should be a top four program nationally,” said a college hockey authority who asked that his name not be used. “It’s the best job in the country to recruit to.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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