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Updated: October 8th, 2011 2:09pm
Zulgad: Pressure to get Gophers back on track doesn't faze Don Lucia

Zulgad: Pressure to get Gophers back on track doesn't faze Don Lucia

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Don Lucia's summer was filled with sorrow and joy.

Lucia spent much of his time at his father's bedside in the hospital before Mario Lucia passed away on July 29. A few weeks later, Don Lucia's daughter, Jessica, gave birth.

"It's kind of what life is all about," the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey coach said this week. "It continues to move on."

If that sounds as if Lucia is rolling with the punches easier than most who coach for a living it's because that's exactly the case.

Lucia enters this season under some heavy pressure. He has been rewarded with a three-year contract extension, but has not led the Gophers to the NCAA hockey tournament in three seasons.

This is one of the marquee college hockey programs in the country and missing the NCAA tournament for even one season raises some eyebrows.

Lucia doesn't have to be told there is far more expected and he certainly realizes there could be some consequences if things aren't turned around.

But none of that is going to leave Lucia second-guessing himself or staying up nights worrying about what might happen. The 53-year-old Lucia just seems happy that he's back to being able to function normally on a day-to-day basis.

That wasn't the case for several months after the winter of 2008 when Lucia was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. According to the Mayo Clinic website, the disease is characterized by the development and growth of tiny clumps of inflammatory cells in different areas of your body.

Lucia ended up with a mass on his brain and started having to take steroids that altered his sleep pattern and left him prone to mood swings.

This wouldn't have been pleasant in good times, but the fact it coincided with bad times for Lucia's program made things all the more difficult.

"You never want to make excuses, but I do know this is a difficult job and it's really difficult to do when you're not at 100 percent," Lucia said. "It wears on you physically and mentally and you do have to have your energy. I certainly feel better now than I have in a while, so I think that's good for me, I think it's good for our staff and it's good for our team."

Said Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi: "I think very bluntly and very honestly, (Lucia's) health for a couple of years impacted his ability to have the energy that he needed to have to coach the Gophers the way that he wanted to."

The Gophers opened the season with a 9-0 victory over an inferior collection from Sacred Heart on Friday at Mariucci Arena. The real test will come next weekend when the Gophers travel to play defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth.

Lucia was upbeat as he discussed his team's chances last Wednesday. The Gophers are extremely young - there are eight freshmen on the roster -- but there seems to be a feeling that getting 60 minutes of effort out of this collection won't be the same issue that it became last season.

The return of Mike Guentzel as associate head coach after three years away from the program is expected to help matters.

"I think our players, our seniors, they feel (pressure), too," to get into the tournament, Lucia said. "We want to get back there, but we're not going to worry about March in October. You start looking that far down the line and you forget to do the things that are necessary to do today. What we have to do today is continue to have a good work ethic, continue to develop the team cohesiveness and win some games early."

As for how he's feeling, Lucia had just returned from a run as he met with the media and said his "health is great," adding, "I probably feel better than I have in four years."

Lucia's recovery has been a process. He said he started to feel a little better last summer when he was able to stop taking steroids. But doctors told Lucia it would probably take a year to get the medications completely out of his system.

He visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester this summer and was told everything looked good. That enabled him to increase his workouts and he began running four or five times a week.

"You can probably tell I've got a little more energy," Lucia said. "This is a long, grueling job. We put in a lot of hours. There are not many days off. You look at your calendar now and I don't have a free weekend until next spring some time. That's the world I live in. I don't know any different and you look forward to it.

"You have to be mentally and physically ready for the challenge. And when you can exercise and workout I think it helps you mentally as much as anything else. For me, when I get out and run, that's my mental health. I don't have any music on or anything like that. It just gives me a chance to clear my mind." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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