Lucia begins first hockey practices

Sarah Mitchell

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team entered the Lucia-era with its first three practices of the season over the weekend. But even after a marathon of drills, the only certain thing is that the Gophers season opener is less than two weeks away.
Under what Gophers co-captain Erik Westrum called “a more efficient use of ice time,” new coach Don Lucia simply tried to distinguish his players on the ice.
“They’re all freshman to me,” Lucia said. “First, I was trying to figure out who was who?”
The 13th coach in Minnesota’s hockey history, Lucia kept the Gophers’ feet in constant motion and at one point even asked the team not to sit on the boards, saying he wants his team “going, going, going.”
After disappointing finishes the past two seasons, the up-tempo style of Lucia is a welcome change. Minnesota compiled a 17-22-0 overall record in 1997-98 before a similar wreck last year, ending at 15-19-9 overall.
“They’ve been downers, everybody knows that,” sophomore goalie Adam Hauser said. “But they’re gone. They’re done with. What can we do about it now? Nothing. We’re just trying to win now.”
If that’s the case, Lucia’s the right guy.
In his 12 seasons as a head coach (six years at Alaska-Fairbanks and six at Colorado College), Lucia compiled a 279-155-28 career record. The former Tigers coach guided Colorado College to three straight outright regular season titles in his first three seasons with the team and took the team to the NCAA playoffs the past five years.
Lucia’s first official test with the Gophers is a doozy. Minnesota’s season-opening weekend is Oct. 16-17 at the home of defending NCAA champion Maine.
The rigors of being in Maine on banner-raising night might actually be a nice start for the Gophers. Westrum said the eager Minnesota team expects a strong all-around schedule to produce a top-form team by March.
“A lot of teams are playing this weekend or next weekend and we wish we were jumping on a plane, flying out there and getting a game under our belts,” Westrum said.
“We’re not going to settle for fourth, fifth or sixth place. We want to be up there in the top three with obviously an above .500 record, not fighting for the home-ice advantage in the playoffs.”
To do so, Minnesota’s going to have to make up for the loss of four seniors. Forwards Reggie Berg and Wyatt Smith — the team’s scoring tandem last season combined for 43 goals — and forward Mike Anderson and defenseman Bill Kohn leave noticeable absences.
Minnesota also has to temporarily practice without the services of senior forward Dave Spehar, one of those who was expected to take over for Berg and Smith. The team’s third-leading scorer a year ago with 13 goals, Spehar was injured Friday and is listed day-to-day.
“We’ll be fine,” Westrum said. “The new guys will probably jump in there and float right along with the rest of us.”
The combination of fresh faces and more structured practices has Mariucci Arena in a buzz over the new era.
“Everyone’s energized. It’s the beginning of a new season,” Westrum said. “We want to put the past behind us and keep this energy going.”

Sarah Mitchell covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]