For so many years, Don Lucia has been a rock in the college hockey world respected by all and revered by everyone who ever worked or played for him.
Lucia spent six of those seasons (1993-99) here at Colorado College, leading the Tigers away from a long-entrenched losing identity, and developing a foundation of success so solid and deep that it remains intact now, a full decade since he left to return to his home state as head coach at the University of Minnesota.
Scott Owens, of course, deserves huge credit for maintaining Lucia's high level of achievement and expectations as CC's head coach since then. It's also true that Owens, as an assistant at the time, recruited Lucia's best team, the 1995-96 Tigers, who came so close to winning the NCAA title before losing in overtime to Michigan.
But this is about Lucia, who has become a deity in Minnesota with two national championships and a relentless streak of recruiting successes throughout that hockey-loving state. He's even enjoying the added pleasure of coaching his son Tony, now a junior forward for the Gophers, whom longtime CC fans will remember as a fast-skating youngster growing up in Colorado Springs.
This weekend, the Lucias return to their former home as Minnesota visits CC at the World Arena for an important late-season series (7:37 p.m. Friday on FOX Sports Rocky Mountain, 7:07 p.m. Saturday but tape-delayed 90 minutes on FSRM). Both teams are battling to secure home ice for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's first playoff round, and a sweep would be huge or devastating for either side.
There's another angle to this story, as well, and it's not so pleasant. Since Christmas, Lucia has been fighting a strange, persistent, strength-sapping illness that was hard for even the Mayo Clinic to diagnose. It turned out to be sarcoidosis, a disease that can strike lungs, other organs or lymph nodes, with various other side effects including severe fatigue. It usually affects adults younger than 40; Lucia is 50.
Since doctors finally identified the problem, steroid IVs have helped Lucia slowly redevelop his strength and endurance. As Tony said last week to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "He's able to bark at people a little bit when they're making mistakes, and that's good to see because before that he didn't have the energy to do much of anything."
But the coach still has been dealing with numbness on the left side of his face, insomnia and having no sense of taste. In a recent interview, also with the Pioneer Press, he said, "I want to do two things. I want to taste a good glass of red wine and a good meal."
Lucia also knows that sarcoidosis doesn't go away quickly, meaning that he might have to deal with it on some level for several years, even if the ongoing treatment works effectively.
Amid all those distractions, which included Lucia missing a series for the first time since he first became a head coach (in 1987 at Alaska-Fairbanks), his 10th Minnesota team won only two of eight games between Jan. 9 and Feb. 7. But after a win and a tie last weekend against Alaska-Anchorage, the Gophers will come here trying to build on that momentum with only three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Of course, Lucia and the Gophers have a different outlook on life now, after all that has happened the past two months.
And something tells me that the World Arena fans will make sure this weekend to let Don Lucia know he's still special here.