Myers: For Gophers, Don Lucia remains the right man to right the ship
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After a few disappointing seasons in a row, a veteran WCHA coach from a once-proud hockey program that has fallen on hard times stepped down on Wednesday, after being asked to resign. And no, it was not Minnesota's Don Lucia, despite the cacophony of protests from some Gopher fans.
Instead, it's Michigan Tech's Jamie Russell who will be looking for work, after eight seasons (only one of them above .500) at the helm of his alma mater. For Lucia, it was back to work on Wednesday, meeting with the media inside Mariucci Arena to put the capper on the 2010-11 season and confirm that yes, he is sticking around.
Lucia and Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi had lunch on Monday, and Maturi will offer the hockey coach a three-year contract extension, meaning that those high-expectation fans calling for the coach's head will have to put away the "Welcome Dean Blais" signs for a few more years.
Lucia admitted, sudden job security notwithstanding, that he's still stunned by the abrupt end to his team's season. While they listened to the national anthem on Friday the Gophers were the hottest team in the WCHA, having gone a month without a loss and staring headlong at an invite to the NCAA tournament if they could just win a pair of home games. Less than 28 hours later their season was over and already this week, some players are moving on.
Senior forward Jacob Cepis returned to his roots in Ohio almost immediately, signing a pro contract with the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL. And the first early departure from the Gopher roster didn't take long either. Former Mr. Hockey winner Aaron Ness, who left high school a year early to play in college, has now left college a year early as well, forgoing his senior year to play defense with the New York Islanders.
As for who's sticking around, Lucia is the most important name on the list. With a top-10 recruiting class coming to Dinkytown next season and the fond memories of those two NCAA title banners (from 2002 and 2003) still lingering, Maturi has opted to stay the course. Although even Lucia admits that finishing two games above .500 is not good enough for this program.
"We want to do better, and nobody hurts more than the coaches and the players," Lucia said. "I understand that the fans want us to do well and expect us to do well, and so do we."
More than anything, having taken this program to the top of the college hockey mountain at one point, Lucia said the current state of the Gophers is far from the way he'd want his tenure at the U to be remembered.
"I think we all want the same thing - to make this program better, and it starts with me," he said. "Someday when I leave, I want to leave on top, when the program is in the NCAA tournament every year and be able to leave it in good hands and turn it over."
Make no mistake, that for all of the gloom and doom preached by some unrealistic members of a Gopher fan base who will accept nothing less than WCHA and NCAA titles each year, this is a program on solid footing, with one of the best rinks in the nation, and a history that ranks right up there with any of the national powers. But times in college hockey have changed dramatically.
Less than three decades ago, if you wanted to play top-level college hockey in the state of Minnesota, you had two choices: Be a Gopher, or be a Bulldog at Minnesota Duluth. Today there are five WCHA schools in the state and the competition from the likes of North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska-Omaha and even farther-flung programs like Notre Dame and Boston College to poach the state's top talent is more intense than ever.
Add to that challenge the recent trend of top-notch sure-fire NHL prospects (Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo and Nick Leddy, for example) coming to the U, then bolting to play for a paycheck after as little as one season. It's made building a consistent team, especially on defense, a nightmare, and you're seeing the results in the Gophers missing the NCAA tourney now for three years running.
But in Maturi's eyes, and in the minds of many others, the pair of big yellow "NCAA Champions" banners hanging from the rafters of Mariucci mean more than one tough weekend versus Alaska Anchorage. Just for a second, compare the Gophers to Michigan Tech, which is not as far-fetched as you might think.
In the mid-1970s, the two programs were on equal footing, having played each other for the NCAA title three years in a row between 1974 and '76. But while the Gophers have remained a NCAA power, the Huskies have not been to the national tournament since 1981, and while Gopher fans are shocked - shocked - when the team has to go on the road for the playoffs, the Huskies last had home playoff games during Bill Clinton's first term in office.
Tomorrow the search will begin to find the 21st all-time head coach for the Michigan Tech program, and the effort to return the Huskies to national prominence will begin again. There will be a similar effort underway in Minneapolis in the coming weeks and months, with the coach Gopher fans already know leading the charge.
The message is clear that a new course may be needed, but with an experienced captain keeping his hand firmly on the tiller. And the Gopher program is much, much closer to completing the journey back to national relevancy than most naysayers would have you believe.