Myers: For Gophers coach Don Lucia, memories of Vermont haven't melted
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Even after more than 1,000 nights spent either on or behind a hockey bench, for Gophers coach Don Lucia, some memories will never melt away.
The men's hockey teams from the University of Minnesota and from the University of Vermont will face each other for the first time in history this weekend in a Friday-Sunday series at Mariucci Arena. But for Lucia, the Catamounts are a familiar foe from another chapter in his life, and particularly from one strange, strange Thursday afternoon spent a long slap shot from the rolling waters of the Ohio River.
Now in his 13th season at the helm of the Gophers, it's easy to forget those days a decade and a half ago, when Lucia was not yet 40, was blessed with a legendary head of curly hair, and had done something nobody had been able to do for more than 40 years. The kid from Grand Rapids by way of South Bend, Anchorage and Fairbanks had come to long-suffering Colorado College and made a winner of the Tigers immediately.
Just a few years later he'd become the first coach in history to win three consecutive WCHA titles, and had taken the Tigers from the depths of the college hockey world to their first Frozen Four berth in the modern era. And CC's first reward for all of that winning and hard work was a long bus ride from East Lansing, Michigan, to southern Ohio. Their second gift was a trip to Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati for a NCAA semifinal date with Vermont.
It was a strange place for the NCAA's best hockey teams to gather anyway, with no local rooting interest, and the games overshadowed among local sports fans by the impending start of the Reds season, and nearby Kentucky's participation that weekend in the basketball Final Four. Available tickets were plentiful, as just 11,200 of the 15,000 seats were sold for the first game. And the biggest college hockey news breaking on the day of the tournament's opener was a downer - the decision by Illinois-Chicago to drop its once-promising hockey program in an effort to dedicate more school resources toward hoops, and build a college basketball powerhouse in the shadow of Sears Tower. One wonders, 15 years later, how well that plan is working out for the Flames.
In the 1970s, during the heydays of the World Hockey Association and the popular Cincinnati Stingers, Riverfront Coliseum may have been a palace. By 1996, despite the best efforts of the friendly hosts running the NCAA tournament, the rink was a dimly-lit dump, more known as the place where 11 music fans had died in a stampede to get good seats at a Who concert years earlier. And a last-minute effort to improve the place just a bit led to a maintenance disaster that almost torpedoed the NCAA tourney before it began.
While the Tigers and Catamounts were in their locker rooms prepping to do battle, an arena worker tried to secure the nets better by taking a power drill to the ice surface. But his drill bit went much too deep, through the ice and the concrete below it, puncturing one of the rink's Freon tubes and causing a huge leak. The tube was patched, but with no time to let the patch harden, it was feared that turning the Freon back on would result in another rupture. Rather than make the teams, the fans and the national TV audience on ESPN2 wait, the NCAA said the game would be played after a delay of roughly an hour, but with the ice-making plant turned off.
"What can you do?" Lucia said. "Here were are in our first Frozen Four and somebody drills through the floor and the Freon is coming up. We didn't know what was going to happen. You're getting dressed, now you're not, and finally we were able to get the game started."
And right from the first drop of the puck, Lucia knew his team had its hands full. In goal for the Catamounts was Tim Thomas, who won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins last spring. Leading Vermont offensively was the duo of Eric Perrin and Martin St. Louis - childhood friends from Montreal who were an amazing pairing. Lucia tried to start his senior-laden top line against them, and within a minute realized that was a bad matchup.
"It was like, wow! They were playing a different speed, and I had no idea they were that good," said Lucia, who realized the only trio he had with the foot speed to match St. Louis and company was a line of two freshmen and a sophomore. "They had to play against St. Louis the whole game to even-up that matchup."
With the ice conditions slowly deteriorating, Lucia's Tigers took leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 via a goal and an assist by Scott Swanson - then a rookie defenseman from Cottage Grove. But they could never get separation from the Catamounts. St. Louis and Perrin each scored, and the game went to overtime tied 3-3.
By this time, a thin layer of water rested on top of what was left of the ice, producing ripples every time the puck, or a pair of skates, sailed past. Lucia says too much is made of the ice conditions, but those with skates on that day tell a different tale. One Vermont player joked after the game that if you fell down, you'd get up weighing five pounds more, in soaked equipment. Inver Grove Heights native Eric Rud, then a junior defenseman for the Tigers and now an assistant coach at CC, said that the conditions were similar to the "melty" ice he'd experience in the spring on outdoor rinks in the suburbs.
"The puck actually slid pretty good, but you might get splashed in the face," Rud said. "I've never seen anything like it in a game of that magnitude."
When the first overtime ended, Lucia and company got some helpful advice from an unlikely source. Bob Mancini played at CC in the early 1980s and was coaching at Michigan Tech then. Rud recalls that as they prepared to head to the locker room, Mancini leaned over the glass behind the bench and implored Lucia to have the players put on dry t-shirts and underwear.
"We took his advice, but in the locker room, it was chaos between periods," Rud said. "Everyone was digging through their bags, or yelling at the equipment guys to try to find us dry stuff."
Lucia said that maybe it was nice for his Tigers to feel a bit refreshed, with their clean and dry undergarments, for the second overtime. Whatever the reason, the result was good, as Chad Remackel scored halfway through the fifth period, and left a celebratory wake of rippling water as he made his way down the rink.
Two days later, on a completely frozen ice sheet, Lucia and the Tigers's fell to Michigan in overtime for the NCAA title. Eight months later, the Tigers got another crack at Vermont in a holiday tournament in Milwaukee, and this time won going away, as Lucia had a freshman defender shadow and shut down St. Louis in a 6-0 Tigers win.
And as if to put a final downbeat note on the Cincinnati sports weekend, two days after the NCAA final, the Reds opened the baseball season with a parade and a packed house for a game with the Expos. Seven pitches into the contest, home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and died of a heart attack on the field, and the game was called.
Lucia said it will be fun to see Vermont again this weekend in Minneapolis, and was surprised to learn that the two programs have never met on the ice before. And he added that in all of the NCAA meetings he's attended in the last 15 years and all of the talk he's heard in hockey circles, nobody has ever suggested bringing the Frozen Four back to Cincinnati.