Thursday, February 18, 2010

Time For a New Voice?

In the Gophers' disappointing season, calls for the dismissal of coach Don Lucia have become increasingly louder over the past few weeks. The team's current 1-5 skid has relegated the Gophers to second-division status in a season in which they were realistically expected to compete for the league - if not national - title. Far from one who believes in knee-jerk reactions (remember, I was called "Sid" for my desire to have football coach Tim Brewster coach a fourth season), it has become apparent to me that a change in leadership of the hockey program is necessary.

The hockey program appears to be stuck in neutral right now. The Gophers finished seventh two seasons ago, but beat Minnesota State in the playoffs to advance to the Final Five and snagged a NCAA Tournament berth. Last season, the Gophers finished fifth, thanks largely to their season sweep of St. Cloud State. The swept those same Huskies to advance to the Final Five, but lost the play-in game to UMD and were out of the NCAA Tournament. 

This season began with very high expectations, given that the Gophers returned a ton of talent from the previous year's roster and added talented freshmen Nick Leddy and Zach Budish to an already solid roster. The season started out like a dud with the Gophers being shut out three times in the season's initial four games and has not rebounded much since. Minnesota has hovered around the .500 mark all year long and will miss the NCAA Tournament for a second-consecutive season, barring an unforeseen miracle.

The last sentence is damning, given that the 'U' hosted a regional at Mariucci Arena last season and will do the same at the Xcel Energy Center this season. Unlike basketball, college hockey not only allows bur forces host teams to play in regionals at the host site, provided they qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers' missing the tournament last season and likely to do the same this season means no tournaments in consecutive seasons when they have hosted a regional. That is simply unacceptable.

I've heard all the arguments this season why Gopher fans have been disgusted by the team's play:
  • "We're better than this"
  • "We're the 'Notre Dame' of college Hockey" (never mind that there is an actual Notre Dame which plays college hockey)
  •  "This is a 'what have you done for me lately' business"
  • "Lucia hasn't done anything after the national titles" (as if those are to be discounted)
  • "Lucia cannot recruit"
And so on....

Up until the past few weeks, I've dismissed the arguments and calls for Lucia's dismissal because there were plenty of reasons not to dismiss the hockey Gophers. First and foremost was the team's remaining schedule, packed with nationally-ranked opponents, and provided Minny with opportunities to rack up quality wins against highly-ranked teams and padding the all-important PairWise rankings. After getting swept by St. Cloud State, splitting at Alaska-Anchorage, and getting swept at Denver, that hope has gone out the drain in the form of a 1-5 run when all the pressure was on the team. Worse, other than the opening games in the St. Cloud State and UAA series, the Gophers looked listless and suffered breakdown after breakdown. I am not one to judge whether or not the team quit in any game, but the speed and energy has been oftentimes lacking during this crucial span.

It's clear that it is likely time for a new voice at the 'U.' Lucia is a great coach and recruiter, but for whatever reason it hasn't worked well for him over the past three seasons. Perhaps the recruiting edge has been lost in that the focus has moved to bring in all-star teams of Minnesota high school-age players instead of more seasoned junior players. Perhaps, those brought in have balked at being third-liners in college after being scoring superstars in their prep careers. For whatever reason, Lucia and his staff have been unable to get the most out of the players this season. In some cases, it looks like players are regressing. Whispers from NHL circles suggest the same.

Right now, AD Joel Maturi needs to do something. The supporters of Gopher hockey are angry and have a right to be. This year's team had legitimate title expectations and in no way, shape, or form should be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life right now. Mariucci Arena is quiet on game nights and hundreds of empty seats abound. After three years of mediocrity, season ticket renewals are bound to decrease again - there were around 90% after last season.

A shake-up is needed in this program. Don Lucia will go down as one of the great Gopher coaches of all time. He belongs with John Mariucci and Herb Brooks in Gopher lore. The two national titles will be forever ingrained in Gopher fans' minds. However, with a stagnating program personified by underachievement over the past three seasons, it's time for a new voice to be heard from behind the bench.


  1. Does that mean you will be changing your blog name? "RicoPuck" has a nice ring to it.