Don Lucia and his wife, Joyce, left mass around 6 p.m. Saturday, and the Gophers men’s hockey coach quickly checked scores from around the country. He saw North Dakota was about to defeat Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC third-place game at Xcel Energy Center, a result that boded well for his team.
“I thought that put us in,” Lucia said, believing a loss by UMD would be enough to send the Gophers to the NCAA tournament.
However, Lucia’s son, Tony, texted him that there still was one scenario that would keep the Gophers out of the NCAA field. Six teams — Air Force, Boston University, Michigan Tech, Princeton, Denver and Notre Dame — would have to win their conference tournament finals to keep Minnesota out and put Minnesota Duluth in. Turns out, all six of those results went against Lucia and his Gophers, who will miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
“Last night, I was as disappointed as I’ve ever been,” a frustrated Lucia said Sunday afternoon.
That six-team doomsday parlay left the Gophers sitting home after a season that featured a 19-17-2 record, a fifth-place finish in the seven-team Big Ten and a first-round conference tournament ouster via a sweep at Penn State. Those marks aren’t up to the standards for a program that had won six consecutive regular-season conference championships entering the season and has made 37 NCAA tournament appearances.
Now the focus turns to Lucia and his future with the Gophers.
Lucia, who led the Gophers to NCAA championships in 2002 and ’03 and whose 457 victories are the most in program history, has one year remaining on a two-year contract he signed in October 2016. He’s making $612,500 this season, and it would cost the university $315,000 to buy him out of the remaining year.
“Do I plan on being back next year?” Lucia said. “As of today, yes.”
Lucia said he and athletic director Mark Coyle will meet and discuss his future, though the coach said that meeting was still to be scheduled.
“At the end of every year, we’ll sit down with Mark,” Lucia said. “We’ve had a lot of dialogue the last few years. We’re on the same page, and hopefully we’ll be on the same page moving forward.”
Lucia wouldn’t say if Coyle has given him an indication of the university’s plans.
“We’ve had a lot of talks, let’s put it that way — just over the last couple years,” Lucia said.
“I don’t plan on coaching when I’m 70, I can promise you that,” the 59-year-old Lucia added. “We’ll talk. We’ll see what’s best for where he’s at and where I’m at. We’re on the same page right now, and I think we’ll continue to be that way.”
Coyle was with the Gophers women’s basketball team at the NCAA tournament in Oregon and was not available for comment.
As recently as Feb. 17, the Gophers seemed in fine shape to make the NCAA tournament. They had just completed a 6-1-1 stretch in which they defeated both Notre Dame and Ohio State, two No. 1 regional seeds in the NCAA tournament, and rose as high as No. 8 in the PairWise Ratings, the formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to select its tournament field. Then came a two-week debacle at Penn State, where the Gophers lost four consecutive games by a combined 21-11, dropped to No. 13 in the PairWise and, it turns out, lost an NCAA bid.
“We didn’t win a game, and that’s on us,” Lucia said of the Penn State stretch. “We had our chances, too. When you leave it in somebody else’s hands, you become vulnerable.”
This Gophers team uncharacteristically struggled to score, averaging 2.68 goals, which is tied for 39th among the 60 Division I teams. Their power play converted at 15.03 percent, 52nd nationally.
“We were good enough to beat anybody, as it shows in beating three of the four No. 1 seeds, but we weren’t good enough to beat the good teams consistently,” Lucia said. “The one surprise more than anything else was our inability to score on a consistent basis.”
Lucia’s uncertain future with the Gophers doesn’t rest on only this season. Minnesota hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since the 2014 national semifinals, when they beat North Dakota on a goal with 0.6 seconds left before falling 7-4 to Union in the title game. They lost in the NCAA first round in 2015 and 2017 and missed the tournament in 2016. Their last national championship was 15 years ago.
And now they won’t have a chance to contend for the Frozen Four, which will be played in St. Paul.
“There’s six games going on, and all you had to do is have one go your way and you’re in,” Lucia said of Saturday night’s results. “All six went the other way. It happened, and it obviously was a kick in the gut and disappointing.”