Myers: Mario Lucia making an impact for Notre Dame entering 'U' visit
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Ever since he spent four years in South Bend, playing for Notre Dame and going to college there, Don Lucia has been close to the Fighting Irish hockey program.
But until Sunday night, the best freshman forward for the Irish had never spent the night at the Lucia family home in the western suburbs.
Mario Lucia needed more than 30 hours of travel time to get from Ufa, Russia -- where on Saturday he'd won a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships -- to his parents' home in Minnesota.
He slept in a familiar bed for one night but will be in an unfamiliar place on Tuesday: the visitors' bench at Mariucci Arena.
The Irish are ranked second in one national poll and third in another, while the Gophers hold the top spot in both.
That means as much as Don Lucia might be inclined to focus on the very, very familiar name on the Irish roster, he's got his hands full prepping the Gophers for perhaps their biggest on-ice challenge of the season.
"It's really not a distraction," Don Lucia said of Mario's first game in Minnesota as a collegian. "Once the puck drops, he becomes a number on the other team, and we want to make sure he doesn't get on the scoreboard."
That's been a tough, tough task for Irish opponents. Mario suffered a broken bone in his leg in preseason workouts, which kept him off the ice for the first month of the season.
And he spent the last three weeks wearing the red, white and blue in Russia, so he's played in just nine of Notre Dame's 18 games thus far. Still, he's notched 10 points already, and was named his conference's rookie of the month for December.
Irish coach Jeff Jackson has known the Lucia family for years and tried to recruit Mario's older brother, Tony, who ended up being the Gophers' captain as a senior.
He landed Mario, who was one of the top forward recruits in the country a year ago and was plucked by the Wild in the second round of the 2011 NHL draft.
The Notre Dame coach knows his top freshman will have a lot on his plate Tuesday night.
"I kind of feel sorry for the kid," said Jackson on Monday night, taking a break from watching his employer's football team struggle.
"He's dealing with a 12-hour time change and the pressure of playing against his dad's team in a rink where I imagine he's skated a few times. He's fine physically. It's a matter of fatigue and where he is mentally."
After a freshman-laden Irish club made it to the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul, Notre Dame entered last season as the top-ranked team in the nation, which proved to be a heavy burden.
"There are already expectations on a lot of these kids when they play at Notre Dame," Jackson said, "and last season, they let those expectations get the best of them."
In 2011, his team was 10-3-3 on Dec. 1 but slumped down the stretch, finishing just a game over .500 and missing the NCAA tourney.
Things are better now, with Edina native Anders Lee leading the charge, as the Irish have started 14-4-0 and haven't lost a game since Thanksgiving weekend.
"Holy cow, that's a darn good hockey team," Don Lucia said.
Of course, the same is being said for his club, especially after its 8-1 dismantling of defending national champion Boston College last week.
On Wednesday, Mario will get one more night in his boyhood home before the Irish head to Michigan State, and since he was in Europe on Dec. 25, the Lucia family plans to celebrate Christmas at home on Jan. 9.
The youngest Lucia boy already has a gold medal to hang next to his stocking on the mantle. If he continues his high-scoring ways versus his dad's team on Tuesday, he might just find a lump of coal there, too.