SIOUX FALLS – When the NCAA decided to put three Minnesota teams in the West Regional men’s hockey tournament, there were sure to be plenty of ties among the coaching staffs assembled.
And when the team that just missed making the regional — Minnesota — has Don Lucia, its two-time national championship-winning coach, hang up his skates two days earlier, the subject at the regional was going to be more than just hockey.
On Friday, No. 4-seeded Air Force meets No. 1 St. Cloud State, and No. 3 Minnesota Duluth faces No. 2 Minnesota State Mankato. Two teams will advance to Saturday’s championship game with a trip to St. Paul’s Frozen Four on the line.
But during Thursday’s news conferences, Lucia was an obvious subplot of the regional.
“He called me the night before [he resigned as coach] and said, ‘I’ve agreed to the terms of surrender,’ ” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, a Coleraine, Minn., native and a good friend of Lucia’s. “… This guy’s an icon. He’s won a pile of hockey games. He’s a great husband, a great father.”
The three Minnesota coaches in the regional — St. Cloud State’s Bob Motzko, Minnesota State’s Mike Hastings and Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Sandelin — have built impressive résumés that could make them attractive candidates. None would address the Gophers position, instead focusing on their games.
They did, however, offer praise for Lucia.
“First, the press conference, I thought, was outstanding,” said Motzko, an assistant under Lucia from 2001-05. “… He’s one of the true gentlemen in our game. ... His legacy is going to grow greatly as we go through time, as it should.”
Said Hastings, an assistant under Lucia in the 2008-09 season: “He’s helped elevate Minnesota to what it is. Great history, and there’s going to be a new sheriff at the University of Minnesota.”
Sandelin, who’s gone head-to-head against Lucia since the 2000-01 season, said: “I have a lot of respect for Don. ... He’s done a tremendous job.
“I won’t call him an Iron Ranger, but he’s close,” the Hibbing-born Sandelin added about the Grand Rapids native.
On to hockey
Friday’s games will be about coaches familiar with each other facing off. Motzko was an assistant to Serratore at Denver in 1993-94. Serratore has been trying to get Motzko to schedule Air Force, but he doesn’t want his Falcons (22-14-5) to play the Huskies (25-8-6) at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center on its Olympic-sized ice sheet.
“I said, ‘I’ll play you, but I ain’t playing you on that great, big lake in St. Cloud. I’ll play you on a neutral site,’ ” Serratore said. “We both win. He gets to play us, and we get to play him on a neutral site.”
Motzko enjoyed Thursday’s old-home-week feel but emphasized there’s something important at stake.
“If we weren’t playing hockey, we’d all have a good time this weekend,” Motzko said of the coaches. “Problem is, we all have hockey games to play. I know it’s a great story. ... The four staffs, they’ll have a little fun, but it’s all business behind the scenes. ... We’re here to play some hockey.”
In the second semifinal, Hastings’ Mavericks (29-9-1) take on Sandelin’s Bulldogs (21-16-3). The teams split a pair of games this season, so there shouldn’t be many surprises.
“With us having some history with Duluth, I think that familiarity gives you a little comfort just on the idea of refocusing on yourself,” said Hastings, an assistant under Sandelin on the U.S. team in the 2005 World Junior Championship. “You know what they’re going to bring.”
Minnesota Duluth, the NCAA runner-up to Denver last year, used a strong second half from a youthful team to return to the national tournament.
The Bulldogs got in as the last at-large team, edging the Gophers for the spot when six conference title game results all went UMD’s way.
“We get another opportunity, so I hope everybody’s learned,” Sandelin said. “We’ve got to play our best hockey.”