Father-son hockey reunion matches Nos. 1 vs. 2

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2013 - 7:20 AM

Notre Dame's Mario Lucia is home to face his dad's team at Mariucci Arena.

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University of Minnesota head hockey coach Don Lucia and his son Mario, who is a standout player at Notre Dame.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Joyce Lucia was in the final days of her pregnancy with the Lucias' fourth child late in the summer of 1993 when her husband, Don, accepted the job that would become the biggest step of his college hockey coaching career -- going from Alaska-Fairbanks to Colorado College.

Don Lucia wanted to pack up the family and go.

Not so fast, said Joyce, a native of Fairbanks.

"I still kid her about that," said Don Lucia, now the Gophers coach. "She didn't think there was anybody who could deliver a baby in Colorado, so there was no way she was leaving without Mario getting a 574 Social Security number from Alaska."

Five days after 9 1/2-pound, 21-inch Mario Lucia was born on Aug. 25, 1993, Don Lucia crammed the family of six into their motor home for a bumpy, 3,000-mile trek south to Colorado Springs.

"My wife had a premonition we were going to win the league, because she was giving me the No. 1 finger all the way to Colorado," Lucia said, laughing.

The Lucias moved to Minnesota in 1999 before Mario was in kindergarten. He was a mite here, won state bantam and peewee titles here, advanced to the region final as a junior with Wayzata High School (Gophers winger Kyle Rau broke his heart with an overtime winner for Eden Prairie) here. The hometown Wild traded two draft picks to select him 60th overall in the 2011 NHL draft.

So this is one reason why tonight will be so special for Mario Lucia. A freshman for No. 2-ranked Notre Dame, Lucia will play the No. 1-ranked Gophers in front of family (sister Ali is flying in from Virginia, where she is a TV sports anchor, to join sister Jessie and brother Tony), friends and Wild management.

Oh, and Mario's father will be at ice level coaching the Gophers.

"I've marked this on my calendar since the beginning of the season," said Mario Lucia, who has five goals and five assists since returning from a broken tibia and ankle injury. He is the reigning CCHA rookie of the month after consecutive CCHA rookie of the week honors. "It'll be interesting for my family and good to see friends. I bet my dad hopes they win 4-3 and I get a hat trick or something."

All in the family

It'll be most "interesting" for Joyce, who first taught Mario how to skate by pushing a chair around the ice in Colorado Springs, drove him to most games and flies to South Bend, Ind., routinely to watch him play.

Joyce will wear neutral colors Tuesday, saying, "I've never had to make a choice between my husband's team before." She will be rooting for Mario to have a "great game and we tie so there is harmony and no chirping" at the family's unofficial Christmas dinner Wednesday.

"I have a sneaky suspicion [she'll be cheering for Notre Dame], but it's not yet to be confirmed," Don Lucia said.

Said Tony Lucia, who played for his dad from 2006 to '10, "She's pretty adamant that it's her son. I'm Mario's biggest fan, but I'm an alumni of the university -- a proud alum of the Gopher hockey program -- so I'm going to be cheering for the Gophers."

Mario Lucia returned from Russia on Sunday night after winning gold with the United States at the World Junior Championship, so his energy level might have to come from adrenaline.

He practiced with the Fighting Irish late Monday at Mariucci Arena, a place he spent a lot of his childhood hanging with dad and working out. Mario still remembers when he realized his dad was a big deal, not just your typical hockey dad. It was the 2002 NCAA championship game against Maine at Xcel Energy Center when Grant Potulny scored in overtime.

"It was an eye-opener, one of the most fun games I've ever been at," said Mario, who was 8. "Twenty thousand fans, all going nuts, and that put a picture on how big Gopher hockey is."

In middle school, Mario started riding the coattails of Tony, who is 6 years older and somebody Mario calls his "hero."

"Mario looked at my career and always wanted to emulate it," said Tony, a San Jose Sharks draft pick whose playing days might be over after he suffered his fourth concussion with Gwinnett of the ECHL this season. "I think he's going to have an opportunity to go much further in his career than I did."

Mario got the height in the family. He's 6-2 1/2. He has tremendous vision, hands and offensive instincts and has been rounding out his game by playing tougher and blocking shots, Tony said. Mario helped lead Penticton to the British Columbia Hockey League championship last year with 42 goals and 92 points and was named Interior Division Rookie of the Year.

Difficult decision

As much as it was his dream to play for dad, Mario chose not to play for the U. It was because of the potential perception of others if father played son as a top-liner.

"Me and my brother are very different players," Tony Lucia said. "I was going to be a role player, which probably made it easier for me to play here because my father didn't necessarily feel he had to play me in a top-six role or power play for me to be successful. Mario needs to be in that role. So that makes it more challenging for my dad."

Lucia then had a decision among Notre Dame, Colorado College, Denver, Michigan and Boston College. He chose his father's alma mater after growing close with Notre Dame assistant coach Andy Slaggert.

"From an academic side, from a spiritual side, from a collegiate standpoint and hockey standpoint, I know he's in good hands, so as a parent, that's what makes you feel good," Don Lucia said.

Mario Lucia "loves" everything about Notre Dame and said "we have a good opportunity to win a national championship."

One team that might stand in its way at the end is dad's Gophers. And Tuesday night, Mario Lucia is just another Notre Dame player despite dad surely feeling pride seeing him skate for the other team.

"But I'll tell my guys he's No. 22 on their team just like T.J. Tynan's No. 18 and [Anders] Lee is No. 9," Lucia said. "You're not going to get in trouble if you knock him on his rear."

  • COLLEGE HOCKEY (1) Gophers vs. (2) Notre Dame

    7 p.m. today • Mariucci Arena

    TV: FSN Plus (1500-AM)

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