Last rites for University of Minnesota hockey coach Don Lucia were issued March 3 in Pennsylvania.
With an NCAA playoff spot on the line, a team formerly known as college hockey’s premier program was swept four straight by Penn State. One night, the Gophers had given up 61 shots. This was not a number common to dynasties. These were digits reserved for pee wee teams with their defensive corps out with the flu.
Yet the fall of Lucia, who resigned Tuesday, could be foretold on any number of nights over the previous years. Despite having more resources, better facilities, and a brand that was near gold on collegiate rinks, he managed to systematically squander it all.
The Gophers had not just become an afterthought across the nation. They weren’t even close to being the best team in Minnesota. Over the last four years they went 5-18 against Duluth, Mankato, and St. Cloud, despite a roster loaded with the state’s most glimmering talents.
This year’s squad held 13 NHL draft picks. It still managed to finish just fifth in the Big 10. Out of seven schools.
It wasn’t that Lucia had forgotten how to coach. It’s that he’d forgotten what constitutes a good hockey team. He’d increasingly turned to recruiting younger and younger players, getting commitments from 15- and 16-year-old child prodigies who shined in box scores. Last fall he plunged ever lower, getting commitments from Cruz and Chaz Lucius, ages 13 and 14, from Gentry Academy in Vadnais Heights.
Loading up on pubescent phenoms was akin to building a football team with only quarterbacks and receivers. The firepower looks dazzling paper, until you realize no one wants to block or stuff the run. The results were predictable.
Tune in this year, and you would bear witness to a collection of child stars unable and unwilling to subvert their ego for the aggregate good. When you’ve been told you’re the greatest since elementary age, there’s a tendency to see the yeoman’s part of your job as beneath you.
The Gophers would routinely lose their man on defense. The backcheck came at half the speed of the rush. Corner battles were fought with the delicacy of aristocrats. This was a team that seemed to believe it played in a no-checking league, that grit was just a strange food served in Tennessee.
Worse, the boy marvels couldn’t even light the lamp. They finished in the bottom half of the NCAA in scoring and ranked a lowly 52nd on the power play. Out of 60 Division 1 teams. This is what happens when everyone is used to having the puck, but there’s only one to go around.
The Gophers, once appointment viewing for much of Minnesota, had become unwatchable.
Testimony was provided in the stands. In 2005, the Gophers had a 2,000-strong waiting list for season tickets. By this year, that list was no more, and sales had actually declined by 2,000. Even more embarrassing was the estimated 30 percent of fans who bought tickets but weren’t bothering to show up for games. Here was a supposed dynasty now playing before a half-filled arena with a funeral home’s air of solemnity.
Both Lucia and the school were prone to invoking the Big 10 Excuse. The attendance plunge coincided with the change of leagues, they said. There was truth to this. Discarding rivals like Duluth and North Dakota blunted passions. But they failed to acknowledge their own complicity in the grand plummet.
The U ushered the fall when it began to see its fans as marks. Like many colleges, it demanded donations as a prerequisite for buying tickets. If you couldn’t afford to pony up, enjoy your seats behind the net. Prices stayed high as fans slumped away.
The most comical scheme arrived in 2014, when the school forced students to buy football season tickets for the right to buy hockey tickets. Broke 18-year-olds were no longer viewed as the reason for the team’s entire being. They were a revenue source to be plundered.
Despite being home to some of the brightest business minds in Minnesota, administrators didn’t seem to notice that their marketing plan had devolved to selling bad hockey at prices few were willing to pay – or show up even if they had.
The only thing they couldn’t kill was the way hockey – specifically Gopher hockey – ran through the veins of Minnesota. Though bloodied and on the mat, it still wouldn’t take much to see a resurrection at Mariucci, which is now officially “3M Arena at Mariucci,” the school’s storied history playing second fiddle to a tape manufacturer.
The Gophers still maintain an overwhelming advantage in money, facilities, and a home in the epicenter of the country’s richest recruiting grounds. All they need is a coach who honors that tradition, one who remembers that it was bought by playing rugged, selfless, northern-boy hockey.
Someone who respects the import of stay-at-home defensemen who relish banging clean the front of the net. Someone who pines for checking forwards who take a craftsman’s pride to shutting down top lines. Someone who realizes you can’t win without grinders and agitators who fly into corners as if there’s no place they’d rather be.
Take a glance at any Stanley Cup champ, and you’ll find half the roster filled with these types of players. Gopher country grows them in abundance. There are no titles to be had without them.
The new coach must also lose Lucia’s beer goggles when it comes to the prodigies. If they won’t play 200 feet, or if they think corner battles are best left to the maid, they are not worthy of Dinkytown’s storied ice.
This is Minnesota. If you build a winner – and do it the right way, as the game’s mantra decrees – the people will come.
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