It took 10 years for the phone to ring again. The timing finally was right.
Don Lucia waited patiently over the past decade for another chance to coach on the international stage.
The longtime Gophers men’s hockey coach has held a variety of USA Hockey coaching positions — but he passed on one major role. Lucia’s responsibilities in the stretch of back-to-back national championships kept him from accepting an assistant coach position for the World Championship in the early 2000s.
USA Hockey finally called back.
Lucia will lead the U.S. National Junior Team this week in its attempt to repeat as gold medalist at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
Twenty-three of the country’s top under-20 players, including Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei and forward Hudson Fasching, open the tournament at 10:30 a.m. (CST) Thursday against the Czech Republic.
“Years ago, he was going to be a World Championship assistant coach and it never came out in the public. … I remember him calling and saying ‘I can’t believe I have to do this … But I know that the phone is going to ring again,’ and it did and it worked out,” said Jim Johannson, general manager of the U.S. National Junior Team. “We both felt we found the right time.”
Identifying Lucia as a candidate for head coach wasn’t difficult. He had been in regular discussions with Johannson and former director of player personnel Tim Taylor over the past several years. The topic of upcoming coaches came up, and Lucia said he jokingly threw his name up for the job.
Johansson and Taylor invited him to participate and observe at the U.S. National Junior Team’s summer camp in 2012. Not long after, it was determined Lucia and his 27 years of college coaching experience were the right fit.
“Any time you have an opportunity to represent a national team, it’s special for everyone involved,” Lucia said. “I’m excited. I’ve been through a few years where the [Gophers] team wasn’t successful, and I was sick. I was able to get through it. With an opportunity like this, I feel re-energized.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Lucia. His Gophers are entering the Christmas break ranked No. 1 in the country. He also has helped his large class of freshmen quickly adapt to the college game and their new teammates.
This sort of immediate chemistry will be necessary for Lucia’s USA Hockey bunch. The team had only 11 days together before competition begins Thursday.
Stuck in an airport on Christmas Eve is a memory Skjei can begin to forget.
The Gophers standout sophomore defenseman spent last year’s Christmas Eve delayed in New York for 10 hours. He was en route to Minneapolis after being sent home on the last day of the U.S. junior team’s training camp in Finland.
Skjei was one of two final cuts from the preliminary roster and was packing within minutes of learning he hadn’t made the team. This year, he’ll be expected to play a big role on the Team USA blue line.
“It was tough for me last year getting cut at the end. It made me realize how bad I wanted to be a part of the team and make a difference,” Skjei said. “It was a bummer but kind of fueled my fire to make the team this year. It was tough to hear and tough to watch games.”
Johannson said most of these star players never have been cut from a team, and the experience can either be harmful or beneficial. The experience taught Skjei he needed to be better.
Skjei still doesn’t quite know why they sent him home, but said he’s much more confident this time around.
Skjei expects to play a big part in the penalty kill and be responsible for shutting down opponents’ top lines. His impressive skating should play a big role in his success in both areas.
Fasching playing older
Age hasn’t been a factor for Fasching.
The Gophers standout freshman forward continued to show he can play with anyone by earning a spot on the U.S. junior team’s roster despite being a year younger than most of his teammates.
Succeeding against older talent hasn’t been an issue for Fasching throughout the fall. He is among the Gophers’ leading scorers and has been a regular on the first line.
Fasching likely won’t have such a prominent role this weekend in Sweden, but his big body and scoring ability should factor into Lucia’s lineup. Whatever his role might be, Fasching is just thankful to get the chance to play up.
“It’s a really big opportunity for me. I just need to go try and do my best and focus on my game and everything else will fade away,” Fasching said.
Though Fasching only knows a handful of his new teammates because of the age difference, he’s very familiar with USA Hockey. He played for the U.S. National Team Developmental Program and has competed internationally, including a trip to Sweden.
Fasching continues to increase his stock wherever he plays. Lucia said he looked strong coming out of summer training camp. Once he joined the Gophers this fall, he surprised Lucia even more with his scoring ability.
If the trend continues, Fasching could be an integral part to USA’s push for back-to-back gold.