Gophers coach Don Lucia played for Lefty Smith when Lucia was a defenseman at Notre Dame from 1977-81.
So Lucia was among the many saddened to hear that Smith died on Tuesday night of natural causes at his home in South Bend, Ind. "Everybody that knows Lefty loved him," Lucia said.
Smith coached the Irish for 19 years from 1968 to 1987 and, until retiring last month, was the facility manager of the school's Loftus Sports Center.
"Lefty was not only the hockey coach but he spent more time there not coaching than coaching," Lucia said. "In many ways he was almost an ambassador at Notre Dame.
"When you went in his office, as he managed the football center, you couldn't see the walls. All you saw were pictures of former players and families. That is just the kind of person he was."
Smith, who would have turned 82 on Thursday, had a 307-320-30 record at Notre Dame. His teams were WCHA runners-up in 1973 and '77. He was the WCHA coach of the year in 1973.
Smith's hockey roots were in Minnesota. He graduated from the College at St. Thomas in 1951 and from 1953 to '68 was an assistant and then a head coach at South St. Paul High School.
"He is one of those throwback guys," Lucia said, "and obviously, he is very well connected to our state with his South St. Paul roots and coaching Doug Woog" in high school.
Woog was the Gophers coach that Lucia succeeded in 1999-2000.
Smith knew both Herb Brooks and John Mariucci well, Lucia said, adding; "He's told some good stories playing with John Mariucci [for] the old Millers back in the day."
The Minneapolis Millers were a semi-pro hockey team.
"It is amazing the names and the people that he [knew]," Lucia said.
The rink at Notre Dame's new Compton Family Ice Arena is named in honor of Smith.
* The Notre Dame Club of Minnesota had planned to hold a dinner at the University Hotel Minneapolis on Friday to honor Lefty Smith. It undoubtedly will still be held, but will be a more emotional event. Lucia and Irish coach Jeff Jackson are among the scheduled speakers. Tuesday was the deadline for buying tickets.
ANOTHER LUCIA ON IRISH PATH
Last month when his son Mario signed with Notre Dame, Don Lucia said he could not help but reflect on his decision to go there.
"It was 35 years ago that I was headed there," the Gophers coach said. "It seems like a long time ago. I like the fact that [Mario] is going there other than the 35 years in between. It is a great opportunity. I certainly enjoyed my time there. It made it extra [special] because [the Irish] were part of the WCHA back then.
"So it was an enjoyable experience for me and I am sure it will be for him as well."
Don Lucia said he still has emotional ties for his alma mater.
"I want them to do well. I was rooting for them last year at the Frozen Four in the semifinal game," he said. "Obviously, we are rooting for our own team this weekend."
The Gophers and Irish play at 7 p.m. Saturday in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.
Lucia said he recently watched a well-done, hour-long TV program recently on Notre Dame hockey.
"[Former Notre Dame coach] Dave Poulin said it best" on that TV show, Lucia said, "they are at the point now where everybody hoped they would be. The commitment, like any athletics, it has to come from the top on down. The facility they built shows the commitment they have with their hockey program. Like all their sports, they expect to be at the top."
And the Gophers will get to play in the Irish's new rink.
"Selfishly, we will be playing them the next four years," Lucia said, a reference to his youngest son playing for the Irish starting next season.
"That [schedule agreement] was part of the recruiting process," Lucia said, obviously joking.
Then turning serious, Lucia said, "It is a good opponent for us to play, too. They want to get back here and play some games. ... It is not too far."
TEAMMATES TO OPPONENTS
Two players from the Gophers and two from Notre Dame were teammates on the U.S. team in the World Junior Championships.
"They will be flying back, probably together, [on Thursday]." Lucia said.
Forwards Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau of the Gophers played on the U.S. team as did forward T.J. Tynan and defenseman Stephen Johns of Notre Dame.
"They have been teammates over the last couple of weeks and 48 hours later they are going to be strapping [skates] on" against each other, Lucia said. "That will be a nice little sidebar to the game on Saturday night."
Lucia said the Gophers missed Bjugstad and Rau, who combined to average about 1.5 goals per game. "Fortunately, it was only for a two-game set [they missed]," Lucia said. "They won't practice with us on Thursday. Give them a day off. And then Friday they will get a workout in. I am sure they will be excited to play on Saturday."