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Gopher Hockey: Don Lucia reflects on returning to his alma mater

Minnesota's scheduling agreement with Notre Dame, who Lucia played for from 1977-1981, ends after this weekend.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia addressing his players earlier this season
Minnesota head coach Don Lucia addressing his players earlier this season
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

What has seemingly turned into an annual occurrence was once a rarity for Don Lucia. Throughout a coaching career stretching into its fourth decade, the Minnesota head coach did not have an opportunity to coach his team against his alma mater Notre Dame.

Minnesota has occasionally faced off against the Fighting Irish in hockey, but until recently the last time the Gophers visited South Bend was when Lucia was a Notre Dame defenseman in the early 1980s for head coach Charles "Lefty" Smith.

Returns to Notre Dame in the past had meant seeing his old coach or for sports.

"If you're back for a football game and you would go back to his office and his office would be covered with former players and families and children and grandchildren. Everybody, all the athletes would go back and pay homage to Lefty," said Lucia, a 1981 graduate.

He'll be there this weekend for business when Minnesota (2-3-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) faces off against the #18 ranked Fighting Irish (3-1-2, 2-0-0 Hockey East).

It's the third time in three seasons. The Gophers and Notre Dame have played each of the previous four years beginning with the 2012 United States Hall of Fame Game, splitting the series between Minneapolis and South Bend. Minnesota also visited South Bend in 2014 for the season-opening Ice Breaker Tournament.

Asked to reflect on what the scheduling agreement with his alma mater has personally meant to him as it ends after this season - to be replaced by a two-year series with North Dakota - Lucia, the Gophers' all-time men's hockey leader with 397 wins, had much to contemplate. History and memories have a way of doing that. He looks forward returning once again this weekend to where he played for four seasons.

"It's nice to go back and see the campus, see the changes that are there, reacquaint with some friends," he said, planning to grab coffee Friday morning with his old Notre Dame trainer.

One person not there this weekend is Smith, whose name adorns the ice sheet at Compton Family Ice Arena. The legendary Notre Dame coach from 1968 to 1987 passed away of natural causes in 2012.

Gone but not forgotten, Smith remains a special part of Lucia's hockey story that has taken the Grand Rapids, MN native from South Bend to Alaska to Colorado College to Minneapolis and two national titles with the Gophers.

"He meant so much to the program and gave me such a terrific opportunity to go to school there," Lucia said. "So it's always a little sad for me to go back and not see Lefty there."

Old memories lead to new. As he continues his 17th year behind the Minnesota bench, Lucia continues to guide the Gophers. Minnesota has won the past four regular season titles and twice reached the Frozen Four during the current scheduling agreement with Notre Dame.

While the games have been non-conference (Minnesota has been in the WCHA and Big Ten and Notre Dame in the CCHA and Hockey East), there has been meaning in addition to facing his alma mater. Notre Dame continues to recruit heavily from the state of Minnesota. Eight players on the team hail from the state, more than any other locale.

"I think it's been good games for us to try to develop our team," he said about Minnesota.

Of course, there is also the matter of being able to spend four years against two types of family. Lucia's youngest son Mario is a senior on the Fighting Irish and a Minnesota Wild draft pick.

Getting the chance to see him - Minnesota's head coach did so this past weekend during the Gophers off-week and got to see the Chicago Blackhawks practice in South Bend prior to the start of the seaosn -  has allowed for a different connection. The younger Lucia had a chance as a freshman to honor his father's 600th career win in person in January 2013 as part of a #1 vs. #2 game. He also had the opportunity to return the favor and score against his dad, doing so twice in November 2013.

Minnesota may not have another trip on the horizon to South Bend after this weekend  but for the fanbase there should be a similar reflective feeling that Lucia experiences when his team faces the history built up with Notre Dame. The replacement is one many have waited to see back on the schedule. It is a team that ended the WCHA era as the Gophers' biggest rival.

"(Notre Dame does) drop off and North Dakota comes on next year. We replace one ND with another ND," said Lucia, whose team will host North Dakota in 2016 before heading to Grand Forks in 2017. "So I think our fans will be looking forward to that as well."

Minnesota and Notre Dame play Friday (7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT) and Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT) at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, IN. Friday's game will be syndicated through ASN (check your local listings). Saturday's game will be broadcast on NBCSN.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --