Eric Schierhorn left Alaska in seventh grade to pursue his hockey dreams. He’ll return this weekend as one of the top goaltenders in the college game.
Don Lucia ventured to The Last Frontier in 1981 to begin his coaching journey. He’ll return this weekend as one of the most successful coaches in the sport, albeit with his future still somewhat uncertain.
The Gophers’ standout goaltender and veteran coach reflected at Wednesday’s media day on their time in Alaska and the excitement of returning to the state to kick off the college hockey season. The Gophers open Friday against Alaska-Anchorage and face Alaska on Sunday, with both games being played at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena. The old WCHA rivals haven’t met since 2012-2013.
Alaska gave Lucia his first coaching job as an assistant. He spent four seasons there before joining the Anchorage staff as an assistant. He returned to Fairbanks as head coach in 1987 and has spent the past 30 seasons in a lead role with the Nanooks, Colorado College and the Gophers.
“Selfishly, when you spend 12 years up there coaching at both programs,” said Lucia, who married an Alaska native, “the opportunity to go there and start the season in Anchorage with a couple games — and what a great bonding trip for players — I looked at it as a win-win with regards for so many different reasons.”
Lucia begins his 18th season with the Gophers in the last year of his contract after winning five consecutive regular-season titles, but missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years last season. It has been rumored Lucia reached a deal to extend his career with the Gophers, but nothing has been announced. He said Wednesday his contract hasn’t been a distraction leading up to the season and hinted he expects it to be resolved soon.
“[My contract] doesn’t affect [my thought process] at all. In what we do, we’re all kind of year to year, aren’t we?” Lucia said. “The year begins and you’re just excited about the year and that’s the process. I feel good about the talks we’ve had and where things are headed.”
Schierhorn likes the direction the program is heading. The Gophers enter the season as the favorite to win a fourth straight Big Ten regular-season championship and are ranked No. 13 in the USCHO national poll. Schierhorn was one of four Gophers named to the Big Ten player to watch list and is the reigning conference goaltender of the year.
The 20-year-old sophomore from Anchorage hasn’t played in Alaska since peewees. He expects more than 30 friends and family to be in attendance this weekend.
“It’s kind of crazy that some of my close buddies haven’t seen me play since seventh grade,” Schierhorn said. “It will be cool to be up there and show them how I progressed.
“We’ve been chomping at the bit to get back on the ice and playing games because obviously we didn’t like how we ended last year. And going home adds a little incentive for me.”
Schierhorn said the Alaska programs helped inspire him to pursue college hockey. He and the community would circle the dates the Gophers were in town and now Schierhorn returns as an integral piece to the program’s success.