Chip Scoggins: For Don Lucia, WCHA loss is a bearable burden

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2012 - 1:01 AM

A Final Five loss left fans edgy, but Gophers coach Don Lucia made a point of turning the page and meeting the next challenge unburdened by history.

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Pressure, what pressure? Gophers coach Don Lucia was able to share a light moment or two at practice Friday with Boston University coach Jack Parker.

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Don Lucia appeared remarkably at ease this week, especially for a coach whose team unraveled in a third-period collapse against its hated rival just a few days earlier.

The Gophers hockey coach jokingly proposed a "fireside chat" with reporters, and he wasn't exactly breathing fire over his team's meltdown in a 6-3 loss to North Dakota in the Final Five last weekend.

"In what we do," he said, "you better have short memories."

And a thick skin. Lucia knows better than anyone that expectations for his program never change and the microscopic scrutiny isn't accepting of substandard results. The outside perception is that Gophers hockey should never struggle with its inherent advantages, storied tradition and stature within the sport.

Lucia felt that mounting pressure in recent years. If he wasn't on the hot seat with university administrators, he certainly saw his equity from back-to-back national championships evaporate in the minds of many diehard fans who fumed over the Gophers' third consecutive absence from the NCAA tournament last season after qualifying the previous eight years.

That's like Kansas missing the NCAA basketball tournament for three consecutive years. Or Ohio State not qualifying for a bowl game for three seasons in a row. It's unfathomable, and it left you wondering whether Lucia could survive it.

Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi reacted by delivering Lucia a three-year contract extension, an unpopular decision in some circles.

"Criticism of me comes with the job," Maturi wrote in a text message. "I never hesitated offering him an extension."

Though grateful, Lucia realized his new contract would not calm the waters. Only winning can do that.

"Let's face it, there was a lot of heat on Joel when we didn't make it [to the tournament] last year to do something," Lucia said. "But Joel knew me and what we stood for and doing things the right way and that you're going to have a little of this [ups and downs]. We had some. But it's important to get back to where we wanted to go."

That place is here, the NCAA tournament, their first appearance since 2008. Playing in their backyard at Xcel Energy Center, the Gophers must survive Boston University and possibly North Dakota this weekend to make their 20th trip to the Frozen Four.

Lucia admitted this Gophers team -- players and coaches -- felt pressure to get back to this spot. The seniors didn't want to conclude their careers without experiencing the tournament. And despite being armed with a new extension, Lucia couldn't afford to see his team stumble again.

"There's no question that this was an important year going in for our program and that we had to have success this year," Lucia said.

It's been a tough, emotional few years for Lucia. On the ice, his teams have fallen short of expectations. At the same time, he suffered from and overcame a debilitating disease called sarcoidosis, which caused a mass on his brain. Lucia's father died last July, and his granddaughter was born two weeks later. He also made changes to his coaching staff, bringing back Mike Guentzel to replace John Hill.

"That run of emotion that you go through reinforces what is important," he said. "When the year began, you've got to get to the NCAA tournament. But at the same time, I'm just going to do the best job I can. That's all I can do. I don't want the players to feel like the coaches are all stressed out."

Everyone understood the urgency, though. Lucia thought highly of his core of young talent and knew Zach Budish's return from injury would provide a boost. Guentzel's handling of the defense helped the Gophers post a 2.20 goals-against average, the lowest in school history in the modern era (since 1950).

Picked to finish sixth in the WCHA this season, the Gophers won the league title outright, perhaps validating Lucia's belief that he didn't need to overhaul his entire operation because of a few difficult seasons.

"It's been a pretty successful formula over the years," he said. "For a couple of those years, it's not like we fell off the map."

It just felt that way, no matter how close they came to qualifying for the tournament. That's life in a premier program. Every slip feels seismic.

The Gophers are back in the tournament, but Lucia knows his program is judged by more than just getting here. That's a minimum expectation, not the finish line. That bar was established long ago and isn't moving.

"I feel good, [but] it's not about, 'OK we got here. Exhale and breathe, it's over,' " Lucia said. "No, you want to try and take advantage of the weekend."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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