Minnesota Head Coach Don Lucia has the Golden Gophers off to a fast start yet again in 2013, topping the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) polls while targeting a fifth national championship in program history.
This season also brings about a unique challenge for Lucia: coaching Team USA at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden. Lucia took a few minutes to discuss a variety of topics with IIHF.com, including: his balancing act between coaching duties, road trips with college kids, St. Lucia and of course, defending gold.
What was your reaction to being named head coach of the 2014 U.S. Junior National Team?
I was excited because it was something that I have always wanted to be a part of. I have had some opportunities in the 1990s helping out with the U-16 and U-17 teams in some tournaments overseas, but anytime you have a chance to represent your country, whether it is as a player or a coach, it is a tremendous honour, and I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to lead our team this year.
How much does your college coaching experience prepare you for this international opportunity?
I think it helps just with the experience I have had over the years with coaching colleges for as long as I have and coaching this age group of players. One of the things that helps is that I have been coaching for the last twenty years, so I am used to the game on a bigger sheet, on an international level, and some of the nuances involved. Dealing with the players this age has a great benefit knowing how they think and they act.
What is the biggest difference between coaching college hockey and international hockey?
I guess I am going to find out this winter. I think both have the notoriety and media attention, but especially in our market, the amount of radio, television and print we deal with every day will be similar at the world junior tournament.
It has become such a big event. In many ways, it is like the Olympics for the U-20s, and it has become a focal point for so many teams around the world in the IIHF and also within our own country. The world junior team has become important, and that is one of the reasons why they developed the U.S National Development Team Program to have better success at the world junior level.
What is the most fun part about coaching younger players?
The most fun part is that they are here to learn, and they want to be players. Having the opportunity to watch them mature at the ages of 18 to 22 and to watch them grow not only as a player, but as a person is fun.
What is it like going on a road trip with twenty-plus college students?
I think it is easy. It is business, and they want to have success and win. As long as you have laid down that framework of discipline and expectations before you ever head on the road, you never really have any problems. Over the years, I have had very few issues with any group that we have traveled with because they have standards of a certain way you represent yourself, your family, and the program that you are playing for.
How are you balancing your coaching duties at Minnesota along with your Team USA responsibilities?
For the most part, my focus right now is on the Minnesota Gopher hockey program, and the focus in the summertime was the world junior team. I do have frequent phone calls with Jim Johansson from USA Hockey, who works as a general manager talking about player personnel. I will get a chance to see some of the candidates for the team. I also have a great group of assistant coaches who will certainly assist in what we are doing. For the most part, this fall up until probably December 7th or 8th, my attention will be with Minnesota. After that weekend is over, my attention will turn back to the world junior team.
Are you feeling pressure to defend the USA’s gold medal or is it simply an honour?
Well, I think it is an honour. I look at our team this year, and we are not defending anything because our team did not win it. That is the beauty of the world junior team – there is such a big turnover year to year, and we may only have a couple of kids that played on the team last year, so I do not look at our team as defending anything. It was a proud moment for our team to win the gold medal, for USA Hockey to have that achievement, but last year is over, we met this summer, and it is a completely new team of guys who are trying to forge their own success.
How will the 2014 version of Team USA be different from the 2013 team?
We are still going to try to forge our own identity. The difference this year is that we will probably be without some candidates that could be on this team. Obviously, we do not have some of the guys that could have come back and been a part of this group, so what this team is going to end up looking like and being like is still unknown at this point and time.
We have to forge our own identity with a new group, so I do not know quite yet what it is going to look like regarding what is our high end skill, what our defensive corps is going to look like, who our goaltenders will be – there are a lot of question marks that need to be answered. Part of the coaches’ responsibilities, and Jim Johansson’s responsibility, is to make sure that we have the right people at camp and that we choose the right group that is going to give this team the best chance at success. What that identity is going to be? I do not know, so we will have to adapt to how we want to play based on our personnel.
Why has Team USA had so much success at this tournament in recent years?
A big part of it has been goaltending. When you are going to have success at any championship level, whether it is college, junior, Olympics, or world juniors, you have to have good goaltending. Certainly, the goaltending was outstanding last year and they won a gold medal with Jack Campbell a few years back. It has gone on to show that USA Hockey has good goaltending. We have produced quite a few good goalies, and we are seeing some of the rewards of the U.S. National Development Program. The competition that they play and the success that they have had internationally at the world Under-18s is impressive, and they have played against those players internationally. They don’t go into the tournament with a sense of awe because they have competed against these players their whole lives.
Who are the “under the radar” players on the roster that the fans should watch?
I do not think it is fair to go there yet because it is an ongoing process of who is going to be on the team. Once you get in that tournament, it is such a short tournament so you do not know who is going to shine. It could be somebody you do not think is going to play a huge role and all of the sudden the lines change, and they have a great tournament. It is all about playing for that ten-day period and it is finding guys that you think can have success in that short tournament.
As a college coach and international coach, how important is it to have veteran returners help the younger players prepare?
It is invaluable, and that is why a couple of the staff members that have been held over from last year’s team can help give some insight on what to expect. Same with a player – they have been through it, whether it is at our level or not, the freshmen come in and the older guys have to teach them the way it is done. Riley Barber will be back and Jon Gillies, who was the backup goaltender last year, will be too. It is the returning guys that have to set the table, and they have to be the leaders in showing and teaching what is required to have success in that tournament.
How much did you discuss expectations with Grant Potulny who served as an assistant coach with the U.S. team last year?
I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be coaching the team this year, so I was helping with the evaluation last year in Lake Placid, which gave me a leg up. Also seeing how the camp operated gave me a pretty good feel about how everything worked this year, so I think that being there the year before helped me. Grant and I have talked about what is important. Obviously in a short tournament, there is not a lot of practice time, so the most important is making sure your guys are physically and mentally rested and ready to go.
Did you know your namesake, St. Lucia, has a popular holiday right before Christmas in Sweden? Will you be sending a few prayers to St. Lucia before heading to Malmo?
I did know that, I was aware even though my heritage is mostly Italian. I have some Swedish heritage from my mom’s side. But certainly, my last name is affiliated with the Italians because my grandparents came over from Italy. My mom reminds me quite often about St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden though.