On a late October swing through Western Canada, there were more and more Bruins No. 17 jerseys in the crowds at Edmonton, Vancouver and then Calgary. And there was an occasional "LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU" raining down from the crowds.
"I was a little nervous in each city. My legs felt like they were in quicksand at home in Vancouver. But when I'd look up in the stands and see the odd No. 17 and hear some of the fans cheer for me," Lucic's smile kept widening as he paused to gather his emotions. "Well, it caught me by surprise. But it also made me feel at home."
Lucic isn't the most fluid skater. He isn't the most naturally talented athlete on the ice, either. But he certainly has that special undefined "something."
At a morning skate, someone outside Vancouver's GM Place was showing some photos of Milan as a baby. "Yeah, I heard I was a good-looking baby. What happened after that ... my head stayed the same, but my nose kept growing and growing."
Delightful. That personality is what has helped Milan Lucic grow to kind of a cult figure in Western Canada ... and New England.
"I think he's already becoming an icon in Boston," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli smiled.
"He's so big in Boston that people are beginning to talk about his hits and fights and his goals as they did forwards like Cam Neely and Terry O'Reilly," Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said.
"When he came to our training camp last year, we could see he had a good future ahead of him, but we didn't think he was ready for the NHL," Bruins coach Claude Julien recalled. "But he forced us to keep him with his competitive nature. By the end of the season, anybody that watched us could see he was one of our best players in the playoffs."
Why? Because Lucic knew what was expected in Boston.
"I knew all about the big, bad Bruins reputation. Stanley Cups. Hard hitters. Fighters," he smiled.
A quizzical look soon replaced the smile before Milan added, "But it's not like I have hands of stone. When I'm around the net, I think I have the ability to finish off a scoring chance. I've just got to show people."
"He's a natural born leader," New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter said of Lucic, who he named captain of Canada's Junior team against Russia in the Super Series of 2006. "When you think about where he was at three years ago to where he is now, it's pretty amazing. It's strictly because of his determination and his heart."
That determination, that personality, that competitive nature, all the signs of a Big Bad Bruin.
The 6-foot-3, 228-pound battling Lucic gained fame in his junior days with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League with his punch-outs, hits, 30 goals and 38 assists that helped the Giants win junior hockey's Memorial Cup championship in 2007. That was less than a year after the Bruins spotted his talent and selected him in the second round (No. 50) of the 2006 Entry Draft. In 77 games as an NHL rookie last season, he had 8 goals and 19 assists. But he hit and fought his way to fame -- with a robust total of 13 fights.
Just before this homecoming tour of Western Canada, Lucic was making news nonetheless. He hurled his big body into Toronto defenseman Mike Van Ryn with glass-shattering impact. He followed that with his first NHL hat trick in a game against Atlanta, and there was a memorable battle with Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek on Nov. 13 that earned Lucic the enmity of Canadiens fans.
Afterward, the bubbly kid didn't want to dwell on the fight -- rather he wanted to talk about his fifth goal of the season and a big hit he made earlier in the game that helped the Bruins get off to a flying start against the Flying Frenchmen that the Big Bad Bruins have always had so much trouble beating.
It's the personality and workman-like attitude that endears Lucic to everyone he meets. Milan's dad, Dobro, is a longshoreman in Vancouver who immigrated to North America from his native Serbia when he was 27. His mom, Snezana, came to Vancouver when her parents moved from Serbia when she was just 2.
"My dad was a soccer guy, but he saw that hockey was a big sport in Canada so he said it was OK for me to play. Besides ... "
Lucic chuckled to himself before completing his thought. "My uncle played in the NHL. So, if it was good for Dan, it was good for my dad."
The Dan in question is former journeyman defenseman Dan Kesa, who played a total of 139 games with Vancouver, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
In one brief question-and-answer session, Lucic answered the break-the-ice questions. Yes, he has hockey genes. And yes, his workman-like parents sacrificed to help him progress as a player. But he didn't answer the one about the obstacle he had to overcome to make it to the NHL.
"I've never been what you'd call a natural," Lucic said. "I'll never forget being passed over in the bantam draft. And then, I was cut by the Coquitlam Junior B team five years ago."
When the Vancouver Giants saw him playing pickup hockey in a Vancouver rink, they put him on their protected list and sent him back to Coquitlam, where he worked on his skating and shooting and, well, anything and everything.
But all young players have something to work on, right?
He said, "Have you seen me skate? Well, I don't exactly have the best form."
Here's where the rise from a real obstacle comes in.
"When I was 15, my mom noticed I couldn't straighten up. My back, it was crooked. Doctors did some tests and told me I had something called Scheuermann's disease. They tell me it's a condition that, while painless, causes the upper back to curve."
But enough of that. Milan's bubbly personality is what this story is all about. He's a natural, even if he doesn't think so. A natural in the way he treats people. The bottom line here is that Milan Lucic stays the same off the ice while he improves every step of the way on the ice.