Ness departs, but Lucia says he'll stay

The hockey coach admits frustration about the Gophers' season, but he said he's ready to re-evaluate, not walk away.

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The New York Islanders announced they had signed Gophers junior defenseman Aaron Ness to a three-year, entry-level NHL contract Wednesday. He will join the Newport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, for the rest of their season.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune file

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Wednesday was an odd day in Gopherville.

At Mariucci Arena, men's hockey coach Don Lucia met the media to reassure everyone better days are ahead.

But several hours later, the New York Islanders announced they had signed junior defenseman Aaron Ness to a three-year, entry level NHL contract. He will join the Newport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' AHL affiliate, for the rest of their season.

Ness was one of the Gophers' top four blue -liners this season. His departure, with one season of eligiblility, hurts.

"At 20, [Aaron] has a bright future ahead of him," Lucia said after hearing the Ness news. "We will miss Aaron, but appreciate all he did for Gopher hockey."

Earlier, Lucia dealt primarily with the fortunes of the Gophers, who missed the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year.

"The frustrating part for me is, we are not that far away," Lucia said. "I really feel that.

"Two years ago, we were probably the first team out of the NCAAs. Last year we weren't good enough. This year we proved we could beat the better teams.

"This year had we won last weekend -- we were a weekend away from being where we wanted to be."

But the Gophers were swept by Alaska Anchorage in a first- round WCHA playoff series at Mariucci. It didn't matter that a lot of other results last weekend were going the Gophers' way. So much so that, by Lucia's calculation, the Gophers with two victories could have had an at-large NCAA bid locked up before the Final Five.

That numbers-crunching tidbit makes the Seawolves' sweep more painful.

But better days are ahead, Lucia said.

"When I leave, I want to leave on top," Lucia said. "I want to leave when the program is in the NCAA tournament every year.

"We understand the expectations here. There are some things we can do to make the program better. I still think we are [on] pretty solid footing. This is an elite place to play and we have to get back to being an elite program."

Lucia plans to be the coach to return the Gophers there and athletic director Joel Maturi wants him back. Lucia, who has one year left on his contract, and Maturi talked about a contract extension at lunch on Monday.

"I will be 53 this summer," Lucia said, "so I think I have a few good years left in me."

As for any upcoming changes, it is too soon to ask.

"The season ended [Saturday]," Lucia said. "We have to evaluate everything that we do on the ice, in the weight room, the way we recruit, who we try to recruit to make this program better.

"But I still love it. My favorite part of this job is still being on the ice with the players."

Ness said he appreciated what the Gophers coaches did for him, but he was ready to take another step.

"My dream is to play in the NHL," Ness said, "and [signing with the Islanders] is my best opportunity to keep progressing."

Ness, a second-round draft pick of the Islanders in 2008, said his three years as a Gopher were great.

"Everything is put on a platter for you to succeed," Ness said. "I would have wanted to do better in the playoffs and go further, but it happens."

And now the former Mr. Hockey at Roseau, instead of going further, is going farther away.

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