Don Lucia and a pair of Gophers skaters ready to defend Gold in Sweden
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MINNEAPOLIS - The holidays are all about getting together with old friends, and enjoying the comforts of home. For Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia, the whirlwind of the next few weeks will mean lots of friends, old and new, but like so many do, he'll be spending Christmas and New Year's away from home. Far, far away.
Last week Lucia convened a meeting of some of the nation's best young hockey talent at Mariucci Arena, putting what will be Team USA at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships through its final stateside practices. Lucia is the head coach for the American entry, and his former assistant Bob Motzko, now head coach at St. Cloud State, is at his side.
They started last week with a few days of drills in Minneapolis, played an exhibition game in Mankato (an overtime victory over Minnesota State, with Gophers freshman Hudson Fasching netting the game-winner), made a few cuts, then headed across the Atlantic, setting up shop in Sweden where they will try to defend the gold medal won by the Americans a year ago in Russia at the 2012-13 version of this tournament.
"The difference for me is our country is the defending champs. Our team is not," Lucia said. "We've only got a couple guys that played on the team last year, so it's not like half the team is back. The guys understand that. It's a completely new group and you start from ground zero."
In Sweden, the Americans split a pair of tune-up games, falling to the host Swedes before rebounding to beat Finland. On Thursday the real games start, with Team USA facing the Czech Republic in Malmo, Sweden. Game time is 10:30 a.m. in Minnesota, with the match televised on NHL Network and streamed on NHL.com.
Fasching and defenseman Brady Skjei are the two Gophers who made the team, which has a diverse roster reflective of the growing geographic diversity in American hockey. While even a decade ago these teams were dominated by players from the three M's (Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts) the team that Lucia and Motzko will put on the ice has players from Illinois, Pennsylvania, California and Colorado, as well as a solid representation from the "usual suspect" states in the Upper Midwest and New England. The lone Arizonan that traveled to Sweden with the team - forward Henrik Samuelsson, the son of long-time NHLer Ulf Samuelsson - was one of the final cuts, and made the long flight home on Sunday.
Along with making those final cuts, for Lucia the immediate challenge was getting two dozen players from wildly different hockey backgrounds used to his systems in practice and his ways of running a team once the puck drops for real. Many of the players on his side now were on the other bench just weeks ago, and getting the most out of players from college hockey rivals like Boston College, Michigan, Wisconsin and Denver is a task that the coaches embrace.
"It's fun to joke around with them. You see a Michigan guy make a nice play and say, 'That's why you'll get that degree from Michigan - you've got a good hockey IQ.' There's a little of that bantering going back and forth," Lucia said. "I got on (Wisconsin star Nick) Kerdiles a little bit because they forecheck different and he's just doing their forecheck, so now we have to change things. That's the point when a team like this comes in is that everyone has their own way of doing things and we don't want to make it complicated. We want to play a system that's more read and react based and allow them to make big plays when they have the opportunity and be responsible defensively."
A generation or two ago, when another successful Gophers coach brought together a diverse group of kids seeking a gold medal, Herb Brooks had to calm the outright hostility between the Minnesota and Massachusetts factions on what would become the 1980 Olympic team. Times have changed, says Motzko, who notes that despite the geographic gaps and the face the several of the players have forfeited their college eligibility to play major junior hockey in Canada, there are pre-established friendships in the locker room.
"They all know each other now. I call them the Cell Phone Gang because they all have each other's cell phone numbers," said Motzko, whose college team has flirted with the top ranking in the county this season. "They've been Tweeting and texting each other for five years, so they're all best friends."
Lucia said his reunion with Motzko has been a friendly affair as well. Motzko was Lucia's top assistant and chief recruiter a decade ago when the Gophers won back-to-back NCAA titles, and there's much similarity between the systems they run.
"They all want new drills, but when Don and I run drills there aren't a lot of new ones," Motzko said after the team's first practice. "The ones he drew up today are ones I brought here a few years ago, and he's using it. They're going to be very similar. But we've both picked up a lot of new stuff over nine years."
At least initially, one of Fasching's biggest jobs was to use his knowledge of the Lucia system and help explain them to others.
"Guys ask me questions in line about the drills we're doing and I know the answers because I've been doing them the past few months," said Fasching, who has 14 points in his first 16 collegiate games. "I'm very familiar with the systems and how things run. It's nice to have that comfort level going in. It's a little bit weird but it's an honor to be here and I'm happy to be here. It will be a lot of fun."
Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny was an assistant for Team USA last winter when Phil Housley took a break from his Stillwater High School coaching duties to coax a gold medal for the Americans in the tourney. While neither Lucia nor Motzko has coached in this tournament before, they said they talked to Potulny about what to expect in Europe, and go into the tournament with their eyes wide open.
"The message is all the same: keep it simple, and find a goalie," Motzko said.
In addition to the opener with the Czechs, Team USA will face Slovakia, Germany and arch-rival Canada in preliminary round games. The tournament's medal round begins on Jan. 2, and the bronze and gold medal games will be played Sunday, Jan. 5.