MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — During his more than a decade as commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in the 1980s and ‘90s, the late Otto Breitenbach used to say that non-conference games were his favorite, because then he could cheer openly for the lone WCHA team on the ice.
True to his reserved nature, Don Lucia was not openly cheering for St. Thomas — one of eight teams in the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association, of which Lucia is in his first season as commissioner — on a Tuesday night as the Tommies hosted Penn State. But his wardrobe displayed an obvious loyalty.
Clad in a sharp-looking light purple shirt and a purple tie, Lucia admitted that his new job is enjoyable, and not only because he has no obligation to find a way to slow the relentless Nittany Lions offense.
“It’s very nice that I get to go to a game and not be concerned about who wins and loses, although because it’s a non-league game I’m sticking up for St. Thomas, which is why I’ve got the purple on tonight,” he said, with a nod to his former team, the Minnesota Gophers, facing hated rival North Dakota over Thanksgiving weekend. “When I went to Northern (Michigan), I couldn’t find a green tie because I never owned one. I had to borrow one from my son. And I think I almost choked myself putting it on when I tied it.”
A PhD in hockey
It is still early in the 2021-22 season, which is the first for the new CCHA, but already Lucia has gotten a taste of life on the job, on the opposite side of college hockey from where he spent his lengthy coaching career. After high school in Grand Rapids and college at Notre Dame, Lucia first became an assistant coach and then got the chance to run his own program at Alaska in 1987. He spent six years with the Nanooks, then went to Colorado College and pulled off something akin to a college hockey miracle.
The Tigers had been a WCHA also-ran or worse for three decades, and with their off-campus arena being torn down there was much talk that Tiger hockey could cease to exist. In his first season at the helm, Lucia lifted CC from the cellar of the WCHA to the conference title. By his third year on the job, Lucia’s Tigers were taking Michigan to overtime in the NCAA title game. He was the natural choice in 1999 when Doug Woog stepped down and the Gophers were in need of a new coach.
In 19 seasons running the Gophers program, Lucia won two NCAA titles (2002 and 2003) and a dozen conference titles, regular season and playoff crowns. He stepped away from the bench in 2018 with 457 wins at Minnesota, which is most in program history. Now 63, Lucia looked to bring what many friends have called his “PhD in hockey” to the CCHA job. Unlike at the Big Ten schools, where hockey is popular, but usually at best the third sport (behind football and basketball) on campus, Lucia said he is enjoying life amid eight schools where the Friday evening puck drop constitutes the start of that week’s biggest game.
“One of the great things about college hockey is that it’s not all about the BCS schools,” he said. “It’s about the Division II schools where hockey is their BCS program and with their commitment level, it’s their number one sport on campus. There are a lot of small communities that really value their hockey.”
Making the rounds
So far he has visited seven of the eight schools and their rinks, and will get to Minnesota State after Thanksgiving. Generally, he has enjoyed seeing college hockey from somewhere other than the visitors’ bench.
“It’s fun to go back to some of the buildings I haven’t been in for many years. Going up and experiencing the Tech-Northern rivalry, but buildings were packed, and the additions they’ve made in their facilities have been impressive,” Lucia said. “Bowling Green and Ferris State have made additions to their locker room set-up and they had great crowds. That’s been what I’m most impressed with.”
The new CCHA was formed when seven of the 10 former WCHA schools broke away to form their own conference. Of the three schools left behind, Alabama Huntsville’s program has folded, Alaska Anchorage is planning to re-start next season as an independent, and Alaska is surviving as an independent. At the time of the conference upheaval, there was much talk about schools making a commitment to their hockey programs and facilities, and the new CCHA was seen as a place for schools of similar philosophies to compete with one another. A few months into their first season, Lucia sees that goal being fulfilled.
“Since we got the league going, I’ve been impressed at the commitment level from the presidents on down to the programs, and how much they want to have success,” Lucia said, noting the fact that Minnesota State has been ranked in the top three all season, Bemidji State won an NCAA tourney game last season, Lake Superior State returned to the NCAA tourney after a long absence and Michigan Tech looks like a contender this season. “They’re all like-minded schools, and I think that’s been among the most enjoyable pieces of it so far.”
Augie gets attention
With Augustana announcing a new rink and a new Division I program to come on-line in less than two years, and Lindenwood talking loudly about having a D-I program of its own soon, Lucia admitted that he has had conversations with administrators at both schools and again, is looking for a solid commitment to the game before the CCHA goes down the road of considering expansion. So far, Lucia likes what he has seen in Sioux Falls.
“I think they’re making a strong commitment to their institution. They’ve got a good president and athletic director. They’re a strong Division II member in all of their other sports with a new facility on the way,” Lucia said of Augustana. “So it’s not like other schools that are looking to add (hockey) and are not jumping in with both feet. They’re making a major commitment to hockey, Sioux Falls is a great community, and they’re in a nice location in the west.”
Having been at a D-I independent and having seen first-hand the challenges they face, he advocates finding a conference home schools that make sense geographically and in terms of their resources dedicated to the game.
“I do think that as a group of teams in the west, if we’re going to do our share to grow the game, we have to look to find homes for teams,” Lucia said. “If they’re going to make a commitment, we have to find a way to help them out.”
If Augustana becomes a CCHA member down the road, it is a safe bet that from his time coaching Alaska, Lucia already owns a blue and gold tie.