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College hockey's small world means every weekend has a connection

This weekend will be "a house divided" in Minneapolis for the Lucia family. Several more Gophers will be facing former teammates.

Notre Dame Junior Mario Lucia (22)
Notre Dame Junior Mario Lucia (22)
Matt Christians

Minnesota (5-1-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten)  will once again have family ties play out in public on the ice, which is fitting given this weekend's series features two teams that until this weekend recently have been on the periphery at times without playing one another.

The Gophers, coached by Don Lucia, host Notre Dame (5-2-1, 1-0-1 Hockey East). His youngest son Mario Lucia, a 2011 Minnesota Wild 2nd round draft pick, currently is a junior for the Fighting Irish.

"We're three years into it and it's worked out well for (Mario)," Coach Lucia said earlier this week.

Although Friday and Sunday will be the fourth and fifth time father, a 1981 Notre Dame graduate, goes against son, the Gophers and Fighting Irish threatened to play each other twice in the last six months. Notre Dame and Minnesota each were in the 2014 West Regional where the Fighting Irish fell 4-3 in overtime to St. Cloud State.

Last month, Minnesota traveled to South Bend for the season-opening Ice Breaker Tournament. Both schools were in different semifinals with once again the Gophers defeating Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame losing to RPI.

The Lucia vs. Lucia storyline has come up a lot in recent years despite both downplaying every time. To them the idea is to try to make the other just another opponent, as Minnesota captain Kyle Rau noted.

Yet it keeps coming up. It does because having a high profile family match up is an interesting story - in the same way two brothers on opposite sides was a week ago or ex-Gopher Tom Serratore playing father and Air Force head coach Frank was - and a break from the X's and O's. Minnesota needs to find a way to stop a Notre Dame offense which is coming into its own, but that's true every week.

Then again, so is having family or a former teammate on the team. College hockey is full of connections that are there, hanging out on the periphery only to pop up every weekend.

There are several ties between the two teams which go beyond family. Notre Dame has 7 Minnesotans on its roster, the most representatives of any state. Several Gophers have played with and against ND players. That includes Mario Lucia. When the Fighting Irish forward played a year with Penticton (BCHL), three of his Junior A championship winning teammates were future Minnesota players Mike, Ryan and Connor Reilly.

The connections are deep enough this weekend where the two respective captains come from neighboring towns with Eden Prairie native Rau (Florida Panthers draft pick) going against Edina and Notre Dame captain Steven Fogarty (New York Rangers).

"I played against Mario growing up," Rau added.

Taylor Cammarata (New York Islanders) and Justin Kloos were teammates at Waterloo (USHL) with Fighting Irish freshman goalie Cal Petersen (Buffalo Sabres) and sophomore forward Vince Hinostroza (Chicago Blackhawks). Playing junior hockey has opened up the number of connections for the two sophomores.

"It's a pretty small hockey world," said Cammarata about knowing someone on every team the Gophers plays. "It's almost come to that now."

Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) will line up against two teammates from last year's USA World Juniors team coached by Lucia. And so on and so on. Despite being in different conferences in different states the golden domers and golden gophers have much in common.

If the college hockey world was any smaller it would show up as part of a Disney exhibit.

Even the father-son dynamic isn't unique this weekend. 900 miles away from Mariucci Army head coach Brian Riley faces his son Jack, a freshman at Mercyhurst.

But for all the connections, the biggest and most famous current tie between Minnesota and Notre Dame remains with the Lucia family. (For the record, Lucia isn't the only coach on his staff with a son who has played in South Bend. Associate head coach Mike Guentzel's son Ryan played for Notre Dame between 2007 and 2007, helping lead the Fighting Irish to the Frozen Four as a senior. Guentzel will have the same thing happen if the Gophers play Nebraska-Omaha, where Mike's son Jake plays.)

All that leads to a house divided this weekend among the Lucias who aren't participating.

"It'll probably be more fun for my wife and the rest of the family than it will be for me," said Don Lucia.

The best thing, however, may be that with how Mario is playing it is much easier to look for Minnesota's coach - and by extension all of us - to focus upon the junior as just one of the opposition for sixty minutes. He's forcing our hand. If we were going to talk about him anyways, it may as well be for his play. So far this year Lucia has been noticeable with more than his solid skating on a team that would like to return to the NCAA Tournament despite having ten freshmen.

The 6'3", 204 lbs Lucia currently leads Notre Dame in goals (8) and points (10) as the Fighting Irish are on a six game unbeaten streak. He's halfway to last year's total in just the season's first month thanks to getting things done in front of the net. Mario has always been able to use his size and vision. Now he's adding scoring at a collegiate level.

His first collegiate hat trick happened against Lake Superior State last month with his father, on a weekend when the Gophers were idle, in attendance.

This time around the coach will be wearing a different hat for Mario and Notre Dame's first road test. One that many of his players share. One that comes with a gamplan to stop the nation's second leading goal scorer and youngest son this weekend.

"As far as I'm concerned he's number 22."


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --