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The Difficulty of Being The Don

Nobody likes hearing multi-millionaires complain about all the "difficulties" their money brings. The same is true in college hockey. Nobody wants to hear about how difficult it is coaching a team stocked with future NHL players. But though he'd never admit it, Don Lucia does not have an easy job trying to coach the University of Minnesota.

Last year, the Gophers season was almost a nightmare. From the Blarney's drinking scandal, to the persistent rumors of laziness in practice, to the rumors of unrest in the lockerroom between a certain star player and his teammates, to the embarassment at the Final Five, to the unceremonious exit from the NCAA tournament thanks to Holy Cross, Minnesota had a mostly miserable year. Yes, they did win a league regular season championship, but with the football and basketball programs being in an embarassing state, Don Lucia is head of the cornerstone college program in the state, and just a league championship isn't good enough.

This year, Coach Lucia seems to be working hard to make those changes. He's still got the same young, talented lineup, but things seem different for Minnesota this year.

Issue number one was the discipline problem that last year's team had. The week before the season started, starting goalie Kellen Briggs was suspended for the first three games of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Then, senior Tyler Hirsch was late for a meeting prior to the season opening game against Maine. Hirsch did not dress that night, no questions asked. Some may have thought it was a stiff penalty, but Lucia wanted to send a message, and his message seemed to be received by his team.

The second issue Lucia had to deal with was the lack of hard work from his team. Freshmen Jay Barriball and Michael Carman have earned a lot of ice time so far this year, mainly because of their willingness to drive hard to the net and work hard in the corners. Lucia has also worked to try and turn big forward Blake Wheeler into a hard-driving power forward rather than a perimeter player like he was last season.

A third, and perhaps most important, issue Lucia is dealing with is a lack of contribution from the upperclassmen. The story of the Gopher's season last year became all about Phil Kessel and his other talented teammates. The Gophers senior class was pushed into the background, and ultimately, they disappeared on the ice as well. Minnesota did not get a goal from a senior in their last 15 games of the season. Captain Gino Guyer scored his last goal on November 4th.

This season, it's tough to talk to Lucia without him working the importance of upperclassmen into the conversation. Whether it was before the season when he told CSTV's Eliot Olshansky, "you hope you have not just role-players left who are juniors and seniors, that are front-line players, because teams that win at the end are not freshman-and-sophomore teams." Or after the loss to Maine when Lucia told reporters that the Gophers lacked a go-to upperclassmen in the loss. Or after last Saturday's win when Lucia told Dean Spiros of the Star-Tribune, ""I said before the game I hoped to see the seniors have a big game, and they did. They were the difference tonight."

It's impossible to completely ignore the contributions of the freshmen, and Lucia has also mentioned them when necessary. But the overall message from Lucia has been pretty clear this season. Yes, this team has three freshmen first round draft picks, including the first overall pick. But the Gophers need their seniors to keep contributing to be successful.

All in all, I think Don Lucia deserves a lot of credit for the coaching job he's doing at Minnesota right now. He may not be restoring a dormant program like Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame, but he's had a difficult coaching job of his own to do at Minnesota, and so far, he seems to be making all the right moves.