chip scoggins

Don Lucia whirled around in his chair to retrieve a photo from his desk.

"Here's something that makes me feel old," he said, smiling.

The newspaper clipping featured eight captains from teams in the 1977 Minnesota boys' hockey state tournament. Lucia represented Grand Rapids High.

Someone laminated the photo and sent it to Lucia recently. Forty years later, he still remembers most of the other players with him and details of their careers.

Great memories, he said, but his focus is on the present. Lucia likes that picture, too.

His fifth-ranked Gophers can win a sixth consecutive conference title this weekend and help solidify a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers won the first three Big Ten regular-season titles, along with WCHA titles in their final two years before leaving for the new league.

In a 45-minute chat in his office this week, Lucia seemed relaxed after enduring a tumultuous previous season that included contract uncertainty, no NCAA tournament and a scathing City Pages article that turned him into a human piñata.

Lucia turns 58 this summer and has two seasons remaining on his contract after receiving an extension from new athletic director Mark Coyle before this season.

"I'm in a good spot," Lucia said. "I've got an AD I like. I've got a team I like. Got a staff I like. I've got a great family. I can't complain."

This isn't his deepest or most talented team, but the way his players work and leadership provided by seniors have brought him enjoyment. A TV commentator made note of the emotion Lucia showed after a late goal in a close win.

"It's been a fun team," he said. "We're a good team. I don't know if we're a great team or not."

Lucia takes particular delight in his seniors. Forwards Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri and defenseman Jake Bischoff are having career seasons.

"Sometimes older kids get distracted by what's next," Lucia said. "These seniors haven't. They've been all in with this team."

What's next for Lucia has been public fodder for a few years now. This is his 18th season in Dinkytown, an eternity for a coach in a highly visible, revenue-generating sport. It seems every member of our hockey community has an opinion on Lucia's job performance.

Lucia sounds like he'd like to coach beyond the two seasons left on his contract, which means Coyle has a decision to make shortly.

"I feel young until I look in the mirror," Lucia joked.

Lucia says the Big Ten has improved steadily and will benefit from the arrival of Notre Dame next season. He also says time will thaw the icy reception of fans still emotionally tethered to the old WCHA.

"Each year we move forward it just becomes a little easier for the fans," he said.

Lucia delegates more responsibility to his assistants now. Hockey circles have speculated for some time about who will or should succeed him when that time comes. Lucia hopes his longtime assistant Mike Guentzel gets the gig ... eventually.

"Mike has certainly paid his dues," Lucia said. "He'd be the logical one to take over. He's obviously someone that I would endorse. He's very passionate. He's knowledgeable. He was a former captain. If I could wave my magic wand, which I don't get to do, I think he's earned the right to get the next opportunity here."

Lucia isn't ready to wave his wand. His third grandchild is on the way and he's building a log cabin in Alaska — "We'll summer in Alaska and winter in Minnesota," he joked — but his fire still burns. He also has standout Eden Prairie prospect Casey Mittelstadt on the way.

"You're trying to hang a banner every year," Lucia said.

The expectation at Minnesota is to hang national championship banners, not just ones honoring Big Ten titles. Lucia knows the drill. He has lived under that microscope for nearly two decades.

His résumé features two national championships, but critics are happy to point out that those came in the early 2000s.

Lucia is returning to the NCAA tournament again with a team he thoroughly enjoys. Are the Gophers good enough to reach the Frozen Four? Maybe, if everything breaks right.

They'll need stellar goaltending, timely goals, no more injuries and a little luck.

"They've been pretty driven," Lucia said.

He said he feels the same way. He's not ready to look at old photos and reminisce yet.