Photo courtesy of www.yougottalovethisgame.com
When Mario Lucia
's name was called at the Xcel Energy Center last June – by the Wild in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft – the crowd exploded with cheers. The Wayzata High School hockey powerhouse and son of Gopher head coach Don Lucia would keep his Minnesota ties laced tight.
“You couldn’t write a better story,” Lucia said.
While he may be right, his story is far from written. And it’s one that has, and will continue to carry him far from his home state before a potential NHL career with the Wild down the road.
This year, Lucia is suiting up for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League before heading to the University of Notre Dame next fall. The level of play in the BCHL is a jump from high school hockey, but this 18-year-old winger is doing anything but shying away from the challenge.
In the first 14 games of the season, Lucia posted a team-leading 29 points off of 10 goals and 19 assists. His point total bounces among the top couple spots in the league from night to night. Recently he also competed in the World Junior A Challenge, tallying five points in five game on four goals and an assist to help Team USA claim the bronze medal.
Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir said Lucia’s hot start is great to see.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t expect that from him at some point,” he said. “But for him to be able to go there and play the way he has this early on has certainly been a great experience for him and important for his growth.”
Much of Lucia’s success comes from his ability to use his size (he stands at 6-2) along with his high-end skills to make great things happen on the ice.
“Any time you can get a player that has size and skill, that bodes very well for him,” Bombardir explained. “He’s a tall kid; he has size, but not unlike anyone else at his age, he has to work on his strength."
At higher levels, size and skill are great assets, but to be able to control the puck, players have to be strong.
“That will all come,” Bombardir said.
Lucia, who has put on about 15 pounds in the last year, said he can feel his strength improving already.
“I’m working as hard as I can every day,” said the Notre Dame recruit. “I’m stronger, so my puck protection has grown and I’m winning more battles along the walls.”
Like any player, Lucia will face challenges in the coming seasons.
“There will be times when he’s tested and there’s going to be times of frustration, which to me is great because that’s all an opportunity to grow,” Bombardir said.
One sure challenge Lucia’s season in Penticton will bring is the physical demand of a packed game schedule. Lucia said his team recently played four games in five days.
“It’s the first time I’ve had that since peewee tournaments,” he said. “But that’s nothing like this. Here, the schedule doesn’t let up."
So far Lucia is thriving in the demanding lifestyle, staying healthy and leading his team to a successful start to the season. While he looks forward to playing higher levels of hockey in the future, he said he is content with where he is now.
Lucia said he wants to focus on becoming a better hockey player every day and helping his team win a national championship as the year plays out.
“I’m living in the present,” he said. “[Professional hockey] is a long way off, and I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m really happy with where I’m at right now. If I continue to grow, hopefully I’ll be playing in the NHL in a few years.”