Don Lucia was given a rare treat this past weekend when he led his charges at the University of Minnesota into South Bend to face the University of Notre Dame for a set of games at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Not only did Lucia return to his alma mater for the first time as a collegiate coach, but he also had the task of shutting down his son, Mario Lucia, a sophomore left wing for The Irish.
The Golden Gophers entered the weekend set as the top-ranked team in the nation and one of only two unbeaten teams in the country. In the end they could only manage a split against fourth-ranked Notre Dame (7-3-0).
Don Lucia said prior to the games that the best scenario for his wife, Joyce, would be a split. Mission accomplished.
Minnesota (6-1-1) dropped a 4-1 decision Friday and had a 5-4 victory Saturday. Though Mario Lucia didn't generate a point in the win, he had his best outing of the season the following night for Notre Dame, erupting for two goals, one assist, three shots and a plus-3 rating in defeat.
"Those goals were gifts but I'll take them," Lucia said after the game. "I was just in the right spot at the right time. Scoring goals gives you confidence. I've been playing hard, but the points haven't been coming but they finally came [Saturday]."
The victory for Minnesota was the 350th in Don Lucia's 15 seasons at the helm (350-183-60). Now in his 27th season as a head coach, Lucia boasts a career coaching mark of 629-338-89, the fourth-highest win total among active men's ice hockey coaches.
"I had a lot of nerves [playing dad the first time]; it's definitely a different game," Mario Lucia told NHL.com. "I grew up watching the Gophers my whole life and then grew up cheering and rooting for them, and now I'm playing against them and wanting to beat them.
"It's a lot of fun and knowing they were the top team in the nation added a bit more to the games."
Bragging rights in the Lucia household went to dad in the only meeting last season on Jan. 8, 2013, a 4-1 win when Mario was held to one shot on goal and a minus-3 rating. That loss came just three days after Mario returned from winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Russia for the United States National Junior Team. Don Lucia will coach the U.S. at the 2014 WJC in Sweden.
"I had a lot of nerves [playing dad the first time]; it's definitely a different game. I grew up watching the Gophers my whole life and then grew up cheering and rooting for them, and now I'm playing against them and wanting to beat them."
-- Notre Dame forward Mario Lucia
Mario told NHL.com that he had this weekend circled on his calendar.
"We got the schedule in the spring and I saw Minnesota there and to get an opportunity to play them at home was pretty exciting," he said. "Playing Minnesota and Frozen Fenway [on Jan. 4 against Boston College at Fenway Park in Boston] were the games I was really excited about."
Don Lucia is 7-3-0 all-time against Notre Dame, including a 4-2-0 mark as head coach of the Gophers. The games this weekend had added meaning.
"It's the first time in all the years I've coached that I had a team be able to go back to Notre Dame," said Lucia, who also coached at Colorado College (1993-99) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (1987-93) prior to taking the Minnesota job.
"Obviously, the games kind of split the household up a little bit when it came to choosing sides," the father said. "You can guess what side my wife was on. The mother-son dynamics are probably more important. She wasn't using my tickets this weekend."
"She was rooting for Notre Dame," Mario confirmed.
The weekend series marked the third-straight season Minnesota and Notre Dame met in the regular season after facing off only three times between the 1990-91 and 2010-11.
A four-year letter winner for the Fighting Irish from 1977-81, Don Lucia had seven goals and 23 assists in 124 career games as a defenseman while playing for the late Charles "Lefty" Smith. Smith coached Notre Dame's first varsity hockey team in 1968.
Mario's brother, Tony, played hockey for his father at Minnesota from 2006-2010 and was selected in the sixth round of the 2005 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks.
Mario was selected in the second round (No. 60) of the 2011 draft by the Minnesota Wild in front of family and friends at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota. Following an illustrious high school career at Wayzata High in Plymouth, Minn., he honed his skills in the British Columbia Hockey League for the Penticton Vees. He chose to play at Notre Dame over a handful of other schools, including Colorado College and Minnesota.
His father has no regrets, but it isn't easy strategizing against his son.
"There were times I noticed him on the ice," he said. "I wasn't looking for it but, all of a sudden, there goes number 22. The way Notre Dame's rink is set up, the benches are opposite so he was in front of me for two of the three periods, being on the left side."
What makes Mario Lucia such a special hockey player?
University of Minnesota men's hockey coach Don Lucia won his 350th career game with the Gophers this past weekend against Notre Dame. (Brian Deutsch/Golden Gopher Athletics)
"He has good hockey sense and sees the ice really well," Don said. "He has a good quick release on his shot but, like any young player, he's got some deficiencies. But he's working to get stronger on pucks and all that. You have to do that if you want to take your game to another level."
As a freshman, Lucia played in 32 of Notre Dame's 41 games, missing the first nine of the season with a broken leg. He finished the year with 12 goals and 23 points. He has four goals and six points in 10 games this season.
Mario Lucia acknowledged that while Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson had them prepared for the visiting Gophers, he knows dad also employed a solid game plan.
"He knows what he's doing since he's been around the game his whole life," said Mario. "Growing up in Minnesota, hockey is engraved in you and playing for the Gophers is every young kids' dream. They all grew up watching Minnesota their whole life. I saw from my brother's experience that playing for your father is tough for everyone, but I've been able to create my own identity here at Notre Dame."
Don Lucia said he and Mario spoke several times throughout the week leading up to the big weekend. The competitive verve within each never took precedent over the father-son relationship.
"Even when Tony was playing for me, when we got home, I didn't want to talk hockey with him but just wanted to be his dad," the elder Lucia said. "That's how I feel with Mario. Once in a while I'll give some pointers and some thoughts based on what I see. But he has his own coaches right now and they do a good job and he can listen and learn from them. When I see him, I just want to know how school and life are going."
Mario is enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame.