Don Lucia's long road to 600 wins

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2012 - 6:38 AM

On the verge of the career milestone, Gophers coach Don Lucia looks back to his start in Alaska as a graduate assistant making $3,000.

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People think, 'Oh, you got the cushy job at Minnesota,’ but a lot of people don’t understand I spent 12 years in Alaska,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia, shown running drills at a practice.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Don Lucia is one of the most successful college hockey coaches in history -- a victory away from 600, which could come as early as Friday night when the University of Minnesota plays the first of two games at Michigan Tech.

But victories didn't always come easy.

Lucia's career began 31 years ago with a short note from Ric Schafer: "Do you want to come to Alaska and help me?"

It was 1981, and Lucia had just graduated with a business finance degree from Notre Dame, where he lettered three times as a defenseman. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers but was realistic about his NHL chances and was considering life as a stockbroker.

Schafer was trying to get the Alaska-Fairbanks program off the ground and coming off a miserable 1-23 season. In the years preceding, Schafer, a former Blake School and Notre Dame defenseman, was Lefty Smith's assistant with the Irish.

Schafer needed help in Fairbanks and instantly thought of Lucia, from northern Minnesota, for the same reason he recruited him to Notre Dame.

"He was just your basic all-round, good kid," Schafer recalls. "Everybody you talked to said, 'This kid is just primo,' and you saw that when you met him. So he was a perfect fit for what we wanted at Notre Dame, and it was the exact thing I needed in Fairbanks."

So in August, Lucia packed his boat-sized 1968 blue Chevy Caprice and began a 3,000-mile, six-day trek up the Alaska-Canadian Highway to Fairbanks. He pitched tents and camped along the way. Upon arriving in Fairbanks, he sold his car, moved into the dorms and became a graduate assistant/assistant rink manager for $3,000.

Schafer and Lucia endured a 4-19 season. A victory for them was keeping the score close.

"We were good at blocking shots and flipping the puck out of our zone," Schafer said, laughing. "That was our best breakout. We had a guy on our team that we called 'Tripod' because without his stick, he could hardly stand up. It was close to that bad."

Recruiting in Minnesota

That winter, with the Nanooks driving through Minnesota, the team arrived in Lucia's hometown of Grand Rapids. One of their players got into a bar fight that night -- days after another was arrested.

"We had more arrests than wins that year," Lucia said. "Kids would come up there sight unseen because it's not like we could bring a kid up for a visit. We learned that first year we better recruit good kids. It can go south in a hurry if you're not winning and you have bad kids."

So Lucia hit the road for two-to three-week scouting trips. He recruited kids from northern Minnesota because he figured they could handle the frigid Alaskan winters and 21 hours of darkness. He brought in a kid from Vancouver named Steve Moria, who recently completed his pro career in England and was somebody Schafer rarely let off the ice.

"And we got good," Schafer said.

Lucia, who thought he was rich the next summer when he made $10 an hour cleaning campus toilets, hit the lottery when Schafer created a full-time position for him to be assistant coach. Schafer and Lucia went 60-26-1 the next three seasons.

Lucia was Mr. Healthy, training to run the Equinox Marathon, and used to whine when Schafer smoked a pipe in the coach's office.

"I said if you don't like it, don't breathe," Schafer said, laughing. "It was a great time. Every little accomplishment was received like the biggest deal ever in Fairbanks. We started something there that has become vital to the whole scene in Fairbanks."

Lucia hopped over to Alaska Anchorage for two years to be an assistant. Schafer won 34 games the next two years until beating Lucia out in 1987 for a chance to resurrect the fledgling program of his alma mater, Notre Dame.

By then, Lucia thought he would live in Alaska forever. He married a Fairbanks girl named Joyce. They'll be married 30 years in June.

So Lucia replaced Schafer in Fairbanks. He was 28 and head coach of his very own college hockey program.

"It was never my intent to do this as a profession," Lucia said. "I interviewed with oil companies that first spring in Alaska. I just wanted to get my graduate degree and then go get a real job."

Never forget your start

Lucia was head coach at Fairbanks for six seasons. On a whim, he applied for the Colorado College job in 1993, got it and wound up winning the league three years in a row. In 1999, he arrived in Minnesota.

"He had to suffer through a barrage of criticism the last couple years, like he lost his stuff," Schafer said. "But he's the same guy, the same coach."

Times have been good (two national titles, four Frozen Fours) and bad (turbulent years and health scares) with the Gophers. But Lucia is now 54 and still here.

In 31 years, he has gone from a $3,000 grad assistant in Fairbanks to a man earning $538,786 (including benefits) on the verge of becoming the 10th college head hockey coach to win 600 games.

"I reflect about all the times to get here. People think, 'Oh, you got the cushy job at Minnesota,' but a lot of people don't understand I spent 12 years in Alaska," Lucia said. "Probably not a lot of people would be willing to do that to get their start, but it couldn't have worked out better.

"I met my wife there. All four of my kids were born there. I got a chance to learn from Ric and be in a good environment to become a better coach along the way. I've experienced it all.

"I mean, everything just fell into place. It just happened. And it all started in Alaska."

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