Forget Mario Lucia’s sandy blond hair and the similarities are obvious. Mario not only looks like his father, Don, but also the two share similar personalities and priorities. One is obviously hockey.
Don Lucia coaches the top-ranked team in men’s college hockey, and Mario is a Notre Dame hockey standout and a Wild second-round NHL draft pick. Their teams will face off this weekend in South Bend, Ind., when the Gophers meet the No. 4-ranked Irish in a nonconference series.
Away from the rink, the father and son tend to avoid hockey talk. Don’s goal is simply to be a dad. Mario said he appreciates the relationship boundaries as he works to create his own identity at Notre Dame.
“It’s kind of nice being a dad instead of coach. I’ve been on both sides of it,” said Don Lucia, who coached his older son, Tony, at Minnesota. “We truly do try to keep the relationship more father-son, not a coaching situation. I want to try and be there for support as much as I can.”
The 502 miles separating Minneapolis and South Bend haven’t hindered the father from providing regular support. Most nights Mario and his parents see one another through their smartphones.
The topics they discuss include school, girls and upcoming tests. Mario said there is hardly any mention of hockey.
That doesn’t mean the passion that drives Don’s coaching doesn’t make an occasional appearance. Mario said his dad is sometimes disappointed with a bad grade and will excuse himself from the conversation.
Mario, 20, knows such reactions are, and is used to hearing more encouragement than disappointment.
“That’s what parents do,” he said.
The close relationship with his father has taught Mario that family is most important — even above hockey.
“We have a really good relationship,” Mario Lucia said. “Me and my dad put family in front of everything. That’s something I learned from dad growing up. Being a good family man. My family is really close. I talk to my parents and brother and [two] sisters on a daily basis. I don’t know too many people that do that.”
The conversations are short, Mario said, but “as long as we can see faces and hear voices” the Lucias are happy.
The “Lucia” Notre Dame jersey will be hard to ignore for the man in charge of the Gophers’ bench Friday and Saturday. The Gophers undoubtedly will have their coach’s full attention, but “there are times when all of a sudden you see a glimpse and you see your own son out there,” Don Lucia said.
He won’t get caught up in it, though, because the Gophers’ No. 1 ranking is on the line, and family bragging rights.
Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly, who roomed with Mario at the World Junior Championships in Russia, and while playing for Penticton in the British Columbia Hockey League, said he has seen the Lucias’ father-son relationship change the past two years.
Reilly said in the BCHL days, the regular phone calls between Mario and Don centered around improving on the ice. Now, Reilly said, Don is being more of a dad than a coach. Not that the competitiveness of the Gophers coach has been affected.
“Obviously he’s his dad, but at the same time he’s going to be playing against him this weekend. So we’re going to do everything we can go stop [Mario],” Reilly said.
Gophers associate head coach Mike Guentzel understands. His most recent head-to-head series with a son was two years ago when the Gophers play host to Colorado College and defenseman Gabe Guentzel.
The teams split the series.
“So, I guess in the house, it was good for everybody,” Guentzel said.
Lucia said that any chance to see a son play firsthand is special. A day after the Gophers’ loss in the WCHA Final Five last season, Don Lucia could be spotted in an Irish jersey and hat, cheering his son onto a CCHA championship.
It’s one of Mario’s favorite memories and one of Don’s favorite hockey moments as a father.
“Last year, I think he only saw three or four games,” Mario Lucia said. “So it’s always nice to have him in the stands. Every time he comes to watch I see how happy he is. He enjoys it because he’s not coaching me.”