Don Lucia could have looked back on his hockey accomplishments and rested on his two NCAA championships, seven Frozen Four appearances and 722 victories. Instead, the 61-year-old former Gophers men’s hockey coach will be back working in college hockey, this time leading a conference.
The Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) on Wednesday announced that it has hired Lucia as its commissioner. The three-time national coach of the year will lead the seven teams that are leaving the WCHA after the upcoming season — Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan — to start the resurrected CCHA in the 2021-22 season.
What lured Lucia back? He recalled his explanation to Morris Kurtz, the athletic consultant and organizer of the CCHA, who called in March to gauge Lucia’s interest in the job.
“I said very simply, ‘The game has been very good to me over the years.’ … To me, I looked at it as a way to give back to the game,” said Lucia, who stepped down as Gophers coach in 2018 after 19 seasons. “An old mentor of mine, [former Minnesota Duluth coach] Mike Sertich, said, ‘We have to take care of the game.’ That’s one of my goals is to help take care of the game of college hockey in these unique times.”
Lucia, who served as a special assistant to Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle for 14 months to complete his contract with the university, impressed the CCHA’s search committee with his knowledge of the sport and stature in it.
“We were looking for a collaborative leader, one with national exposure and prominence,” said Ferris State athletic director Perk Weisenburger, chairman of the search committee.
“Somebody who could hit the ground running and make an impact.”
Bob Motzko, who succeeded Lucia as Gophers coach and served under him as an assistant, applauded the move.
“College hockey is better with Don Lucia in it,” Motzko said, “and I think this is a great hire for the CCHA.”
One issue that Lucia will face quickly is league membership. He said the CCHA could stay with seven teams but labeled adding an eighth team as a priority.
One candidate could be St. Thomas, which remains waiting on approval from the NCAA Division I Council to move directly from Division III to Division I.
“They certainly would be a candidate,” Lucia said of St. Thomas. “They have a rich tradition academically and athletically.”
Lucia, who also coached at Alaska and Colorado College, emphasized that programs seeking to join the CCHA must be financially committed to hockey.
“We want to make sure if there is an eighth team or more, they’re going to have those same goals with their hockey program and they’re going to be a good fit from a competitive standpoint and a geographical standpoint,” he said.
That would seem to rule out the three WCHA teams that weren’t invited to join the seven leaving for the new CCHA.
Alaska, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville all are experiencing financial issues.
“We want the top driving the CCHA as far as pushing to be the best league we possibly can,” Lucia said.
“We don’t want to have a situation where teams don’t have the funding necessary to play at this level.’’