Don Lucia sits down to talk Gophers men’s hockey

The Gophers coach talks about last season, his health going into this year, new freshmen and the goalie position

Max Sanders

With the exhibition opener on Oct. 4, Gophers menâÄôs hockey head coach Don Lucia sits down to discuss last year, the upcoming season, his battle with the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis and other issues as the team looks to rebound from last seasonâÄôs disappointing finish, in which Minnesota missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. Last year your team started off strong, beginning the year with an 11-game unbeaten streak, claiming the No. 1 ranking in the process, but the end of the season saw the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. What do you think changed between the beginning and end of last season? Good question, probably a couple things. I think we had trouble scoring the second half of the year a little bit more. I think we had more defensive breakdowns the second half, and as a team, we didnâÄôt play as well the second half as the first half of the season. We were kind of winning by a goal the first half of the season; all of a sudden we were losing by a goal. ItâÄôs that fine line between winning and losing at that point in time. You need a save at a critical point; a lot of things can go into it. Minnesota opens with a road series against North Dakota âÄîthe defending MacNaughton Cup champions âÄî and then follows that with a home series against Denver. How crucial is it to get off to a good start against two of the elite teams in the WCHA? You donâÄôt want to be playing catch-up. Last year we got off to a good start, and we didnâÄôt finish the way we wanted to obviously. Finishing is the most important thing. WeâÄôre going to find out where weâÄôre at in a hurry. North Dakota won the league last year; DenverâÄôs picked in a lot of places to be the No. 1 team in the country. We have a very difficult start because we donâÄôt have any non-conference games to begin the year âĦ WeâÄôre going to have to try to be up to speed right from the opening drop of the puck up in Grand Forks. You return 10 of last seasonâÄôs 11 top scorers, but the one key departure is Ryan Stoa . Who do you expect to pick up some of the scoring gap left by StoaâÄôs departure? Well I think JordanâÄôs [Schroeder] going to score more goals this year. I think he deferred a lot last year and looked for Ryan. I think itâÄôs not going to be one guy; it has to be a lot of guys. The guys that have seven, eight, nine goals have to get 12, 13 this year. The freshmen that maybe struggled acclimating to life in the WCHA have to make a step. We have two freshmen forwards coming in I think that can help us in [Zach] Budish and [Josh] Birkholz . I think our back line is going to be better offensively with Aaron Ness being a year older and stronger and Nick Leddy coming in. I think we have some more guys back on the back line that are going to create more offense this year. Is [junior goalie Alex] Kangas the starter? Yeah, I would say going in, but KentâÄôs [Patterson] going to play. I think KentâÄôs going to push Alex this year but weâÄôll see how they play when they get their opportunity to play. Zach Budish, Nick Leddy and Josh Birkholz highlight the new recruits of this yearâÄôs Gophers program. What role do you see the freshmen playing on this yearâÄôs team? I think on the back line, we need Seth [Helgeson] to be a bit of a physical presence. We were at times undersized last year on the blue line, and I think that showed up in front of our nets. HeâÄôs a 6 [foot] 3 [inch], 215 pound kid, and hopefully heâÄôs going to play that type of roll. Obviously Nick Leddy is a tremendous skater, and we need him to bring in the offense. Budish is a big strong power forward. We donâÄôt have a lot of guys coming in, first time in a while. It seems like weâÄôve had 10 freshmen every year, because of the departures to the NHL. WeâÄôve got some seniors, but the freshmen are going to be given an opportunity to play, and weâÄôll have to grow with them a little bit as the year goes on. This year you have two former players, Justin Johnson and Grant Potulny, joining your coaching staff. What does it do for your team to have two former players now working alongside you on the bench? I think itâÄôs important from the standpoint that theyâÄôve walked in their shoes. They know what itâÄôs like to be a student here at the University of Minnesota. They certainly know what itâÄôs like to be an athlete; they were both part of our national title teams, so they also know what it takes to win. I think when you bring those credentials, you have instant respect. Justin will work with the goaltenders, and obviously Grant will be working with all facets; heâÄôs going to grow as a coach this year. HeâÄôs a tremendous captain and leader here in our program, and weâÄôre excited to have him [as] a part of our staff. Seniors Ryan Flynn and Tony Lucia were named captains for the upcoming season. How are you counting on their leadership to guide you through an especially tough early portion of the schedule? I think itâÄôs not just the two of them. There are six seniors that have to lead us. Obviously Tony and Ryan are wearing the CâÄôs and they have great respect from their teammates in order to do that. But the bottom line is that those six seniors have to be the leaders of our team this year. JordanâÄôs probably going to be, when the year begins, our best player and have to take a leadership role as well. Our seniors, to me, have to have a good year. If our seniors have a very good year, our teamâÄôs going to have a very good year. The newest USA Today preseason poll has the Gophers ranked No. 6 in the country, what are your expectations for the team for this season? I think the expectations for me are to grow as a team, get better as the year goes on, play our best hockey at the end of the year, get to the Final Five, be in the NCAA Tournament. It was obviously a disappointment not to be in the NCAAs a year ago, because the expectation is to be there every year. The league is very, very competitive; I think the WCHA is going to be very strong this year. Last season you had some health issues which forced you to miss some regular season games. What is the status of your health, and is it something you foresee as being an issue this year? No, I donâÄôt foresee it being the issue like last year. I was at the Mayo [Clinic] yesterday, and based on the doctorâÄôs reports, everything is going well, the inflammation has gone down again. IâÄôll have to have treatments again this year, but they wonâÄôt be as often as I had last year. Last year I was doing it every week, and this year heading into the season IâÄôll have to do it every three weeks. YouâÄôre entering your 11th year at the helm of the Gophers program, and under your direction the team has won more than 250 games and two national championships. How much longer do you hope to keep coaching the Minnesota program? Until I retire. This is a great position. Every year you do it, youâÄôre honored to be a part of such a great program and great tradition and fans, and the opportunity to coach these players. I still love what I do and thereâÄôs no place else IâÄôd rather be. I finished year 10, and hopefully I can get to year 20.