Myers: Trip to Colorado College revives memories for Don Lucia
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MINNEAPOLIS -- While this weekend's two-game WCHA set at Colorado College will be the Gophers' last trip to Colorado Springs with conference points on the line, it would take an alien invasion, or perhaps a striptease at center ice, to make this Don Lucia's most memorable trip to the foothills of Pikes Peak.
Not usually one for sentiment, Lucia got a little nostalgic on Wednesday when asked to ponder his final WCHA trip to the place where he burst onto the national coaching scene nearly 20 years ago.
At the end of the 1992-93 season, when the Tigers finished last in the 10-team WCHA, it was not a surprise. In fact, it was pretty much the norm.
For three decades or more, Colorado College had been a true lower-echelon team in western college hockey. Despite legendary coaches like Bob Johnson and Jeff Sauer -- both of whom would go on to lead Wisconsin to multiple NCAA titles -- guiding the Tigers at various points in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, CC failed to win a WCHA regular season title in all of that time, and last-place finishes were not uncommon.
Brad Buetow had coached the Gophers for six seasons in the '80s, then had wound up at CC, but he too failed to recapture the magic of the '50s (when the Tigers won a pair of NCAA crowns) and was dismissed in the spring of '93.
There were abundant questions about the future of the CC program at the time. Not only had the Tigers failed to compete for years, their aging home rink was scheduled for demolition.
Lucia, who had enjoyed some success at Alaska-Fairbanks -- the furthest outpost in the college hockey world -- interviewed for and was offered the CC job, with an important caveat: the school could not guarantee that it was more than a one-year position, as there were hints that the CC may drop hockey at the end of the 1993-94 season.
For Lucia, the toughest part of taking the new position was the sales job he needed to do at home. His wife, Joyce, is an Alaskan, with all of her family living there, and was pregnant with the couple's fourth child at the time. They had just bought a motorhome, with plans to travel Alaska during the short summers there. Still, they sold their house and packed for Colorado -- but Joyce refused to leave until the baby arrived.
"I still kid her about it, that she didn't think there was anybody who could deliver a baby in Colorado, and there was no way she was leaving without Mario getting a 574 Social Security number from Alaska," Lucia said.
With their house sold, the family was temporarily living in the RV when Joyce's water broke, and they headed to the Alaskan hospital's birthing center one more time.
So, just five days after their son Mario -- now a star freshman at Notre Dame and a second-round draft pick of the Wild -- was born, the Lucia family loaded up the RV and made the several-day trek from Fairbanks to Colorado Springs (more than 3,100 miles, according to Google Maps). It was a challenging time, for many reasons.
"I always joke that Joyce had a premonition that we were going to win the league, because she was giving me the finger all the way to Colorado, along with all of my in-laws," Lucia said.
"It was a trail of tears when we left Alaska with her mom and dad and everybody there. ... I'd be driving until late at night and they'd be sleeping in the back of the motorhome. I'd be up at six heading out on the Alaska Highway and they'd be bouncing on the beds when we hit some of those bumps."
Lucia had little time to settle in at Colorado College, taking over the once-proud program with assistant coach Scott Owens -- a holdover from the Buetow days -- helping and roughly a month to prep before they hit the ice.
With those limitations, all Owens and Lucia did together, over the course of the next eight months, was shock the college hockey world, taking the Tigers from the cellar to the WCHA title in the least-expected one-season turnaround anyone had ever seen.
"It was a really exciting time, because it was all so new," said Owens, who took over as the Tigers head coach in 1999, when Lucia left for the U.
"Don was the perfect coach at the right time and he had six really good years. We had a lot of fun together."
Lucia's Tigers became the first team in WCHA history to win three consecutive league titles and in 1996 he led them to the NCAA title game, within an overtime goal of the crown.
With the Broadmoor World Arena gone, the Tigers spent a few seasons commuting across town to practice and play at the Air Force Academy's rink. But the CC program's quick turnaround and sudden national prominence helped spur approval and construction of a new 7,300-seat arena across the street from USA Hockey's offices in Colorado Springs. It has been the Tigers' home since 1998 and has hosted two NCAA regional tournaments.
Owens has won three more WCHA titles at the helm of the Tigers program, but this was not supposed to be a season they'd contend. Their best player, star forward Jaden Schwartz, bolted to the NHL after two seasons at CC and made an immediate impact as a member of the St. Louis Blues playoff roster last spring. In his absence, the Tigers are getting a load of goals from unexpected sources, while struggling to keep the puck out of their own net.
"We've got some seniors who have been waiting for their chance and the older guys have been contributing," Owens said. "But we're also giving up a lot of goals and a lot of shots. I thought it would be better on the other end."
"U" forward Tom Serratore, who saw plenty of the Tigers while growing up in Colorado Springs, hosted the Gophers for dinner at his family's home on Thursday night. He said you can expect a wide-open game when CC plays at home, at altitude, on their Olympic-size ice sheet.
"They have a skilled group, so it's going to be a tough weekend," Serratore said.
Although they'll travel by plane, and stay in a hotel, which will be a nice break for the coach. Any trip to Colorado Springs that doesn't involve 3,100 miles in a motorhome, with a newborn, has got to be a little easier for Lucia.