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Hockey: Lucias to face off this weekend

Conor Kelly | Thursday, November 7, 2013

When No. 4 Notre Dame faces No. 1 Minnesota on Friday and Saturday in the Compton Family Ice Arena, it will be more than just games against the top team in the country for the team’s three Minnesota natives – sophomore center Steven Fogarty, sophomore winger Mario Lucia and freshman defenseman Ben Ostlie.

Playing against the team representing the “state of hockey” carries more weight than a normal game for those Minnesotans who left the Land of 10,000 Lakes to play college hockey.

But for Lucia, it’s even more personal.

Minnesota’s head coach is Don Lucia, Mario’s father and architect of two national championship Gopher teams. For the younger Lucia, the Minnesota game is one that’s always on his radar.

“It was obviously marked on my calendar as soon as we got the schedule,” Lucia said of the team’s matchup last year in Minneapolis when the Irish lost 4-1. “It was nerve-racking but after the first five minutes you just forget about it and play hockey.”

The connections between the University of Minnesota, Notre Dame and the Lucias run deep. Don is a 1981 graduate of Notre Dame, where he played under legendary head coach Lefty Smith. After coaching stints at Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado College, he took the reins of Minnesota’s iconic hockey program in 1999.

Mario’s older brother, Tony, played for Don and the Gophers, but Mario decided to head southeast.

“I honestly sort of thought [Minnesota] was where I was going to end up. In Minnesota, hockey is engrained in you. There’s ice in your veins. Playing for the Gophers is a dream for every high school player,” Mario Lucia said. “But I thought we had a good chance to do really big things [at Notre Dame], and of course it’s Notre Dame. My dad played here, so that’s something that most fathers and sons don’t get to share.”

In a state and a family that loves hockey and the Gophers, the decision to come to Notre Dame was Mario’s own.

“There was a lot of pressure on both my dad and [Tony] every night. I think he grew up always wanting to play for my dad, and it just happened to work out that way,” he said. “There are different dynamics, different paths, and I just wanted to be my own person.”

Friday and Saturday will also mark a chance for Lucia and his Minnesotan teammates to reconnect with friends who have donned the Gophers’ maroon and gold.

“I have three really good friends on the team, the three brothers, the Reillys [Mike, Ryan and Connor].  We played with them at Penticton [BCHL junior team] and won a national championship there. I’ve known them my whole life,” Lucia said. “Mike is one of my best friends. I haven’t gotten a chance to see them very much because I’m always here, so we really only see each other a few times a year. It will be good to hang out after the game on Saturday.”

When it comes to facing them on the ice, however, it becomes just another game.

“Once you’re in a game, you don’t really realize anything until there’s a stoppage and you look over and give someone a smile,” Lucia said. “When you’re in the game, it doesn’t really matter.”

Despite his decision to leave the state, Mario said he has maintained a close relationship with his father as the pair have bonded over hockey and Notre Dame.

“We talk, like, once a week,” Lucia said. “When he comes to town for games, he tells me stuff that he sees and that I need to work on, but mostly he’s just being a dad, asking me how school’s going and everything. … He loves Notre Dame. He graduated from here, and it’s something that he really cherishes.”

For this week at least, the Lucias are a house divided. While his mother, Joyce, roots for Minnesota at almost all times, Mario said she would root for the Irish when the teams face off this weekend.

“She was teasing my dad saying she was going to make him sleep on the couch the whole week, but she is rooting for us,” Lucia said. “Hopefully, we’ll give her something to cheer about.”

Contact Conor Kelly at ckelly17@nd.edu