After running marathon, college hockey season offers Don Lucia another
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MINNEAPOLIS - Done right, a college hockey campaign spans three seasons in the Twin Cities. The Gophers open their 2013-14 slate for real (sorry Canadian colleges, you do not count) on Friday night versus Mercyhurst at Mariucci Arena in what is decidedly Minnesota fall. If all goes according to plan, the season will end on a Saturday in April at the Frozen Four in Philadelphia, when the snow has melted and spring is in the air.
In other words, to repeat an oft-used sports cliché, "It's a marathon, not a sprint."
And if there's one guy in the college hockey world with recent marathon experience, it's Gophers coach Don Lucia. He may still have sore legs on Friday night, after running last weekend's Twin Cities Marathon in less than four hours - a feat he did not just for charity, but to prove to himself that he is fully recovered from the health issues that caused him to miss games during the 2008-09 season.
"Health-wise we're great," Lucia said on Wednesday, in the midst of the staff's first full week on-ice with the team. "The coach is probably the most stiff of anyone on the team right now."
Lucia used three goalies in a penalty-marred 5-1 exhibition win over Lethbridge last weekend, which means nothing, other than the fact that seeing inexperienced players in key roles may be a hallmark of these Gophers, especially early in the season. The Gophers coach for years has joined the chorus that says you win with seniors and juniors in college hockey. It's that logic that has upperclassmen-laden Wisconsin picked as the favorite to win the Big Ten's inaugural hockey title this season. For the Gophers, the cupboard is mostly free of experienced offense.
Of the Gophers' five leading scorers last season (none of them seniors), only one returns. Kyle Rau is a co-captain and will be the key to Lucia's top line and top power play unit. The coach has talked about moving Rau from wing to center, to better utilize the former Mr. Hockey winner's ability to get to the net and plant himself near the crease. Rau, who reportedly is a copious talker on the ice but is much more reserved in street clothes, said labels like "wing" and "center" are useless in the heat of battle.
"I was a center in high school, so it's what I'm most comfortable with - not that I'm not comfortable on the wing," Rau said. "Once you get in the offensive zone, positions go out the window anyway."
In the Lethbridge tune-up, Rau centered freshmen Vinni Lettieri and Hudson Fasching. At least initially, Lucia liked what he saw from the newbies.
"They did some good things, but the competition steps up this weekend, and that's all part of the growing process," said Lucia, who expects a half-dozen or more freshmen to play key roles this season. "They did a good job and I think some of the returning players have improved from where they were a year ago, so that's a real positive as well."
Mercyhurst, from Erie, Pa., has faced the Gophers only once before, in a first-round NCAA tourney game a decade ago at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers won 9-2 en route to their second consecutive national title. It was such a thorough beat-down that Lakers coach Rick Gotkin joked afterward that he knew his team was in trouble very early on.
"I tried to call a timeout during warm-ups, but the refs wouldn't let me," Gotkin said.
The Gophers roster for the coming season, the players Lucia will have available for the season's first few months, was changing long before the fall colors came to Dinkytown as well. Just a few weeks into the school year, freshman defenseman Tommy Vannelli decided college was not for him, and left the program. He is currently playing junior hockey in Canada, and has lost his NCAA eligibility as a result. And fans will have to wait at least a few more weeks to see the first Floridian take the ice in a Gophers jersey. Gabe Guertler, a freshman forward who hails from Fort Lauderdale, was suspended in early September after an off-ice incident that has been widely reported as alcohol-related.
"Sometimes there are difficult lessons that kids have to have, and that certainly happened this fall with one of our young men," Lucia said. "In some regards hopefully it will be the best thing that ever happened to him in the long run in terms of his maturity and everything else."
When it was first announced, Lucia said Guertler was suspended indefinitely, and his status would be reevaluated sometime in November. As for what that will do to his team's depth, Lucia is unconcerned.
"I think we have enough good players that it shouldn't impact us," Lucia said. "He's going to have to fight to get back into the lineup after a month-plus when we're playing."
After Mercyhurst, the Gophers will face either Clarkson or New Hampshire on Saturday. Next weekend they visit Bemidji State - a team they beat four times last season - for a pair of games. Then things get tougher, much tougher, as Boston College comes to Mariucci for two games, and the Gophers travel to Notre Dame for two games. What will happen then is a mystery, but the coach for one is eager to learn what's out there waiting for the Gophers once the puck is dropped.
"We just need to start playing games," Lucia said. "See where we're at, see the mistakes we make, work on them in practice and try to correct them."
For the second time in a week, he sounds like a man prepping for a marathon.