Improved Lucia succeeding in USHL, commits to college

By Kevin Wey

Commitment.

Dedication.

Words that describe Omaha Lancers forward and San Jose Sharks sixth round draft pick Tony Lucia.

The morning after his junior season with the Wayzata Trojans of the Minnesota High School Hockey League ended, he boarded a plane from the Twin Cities down to Omaha to practice with the Lancers of the USHL. The Lancers wanted Lucia to play 10 games at the end of the 2004-05 season so that he could be placed on Omaha’s protected list. Without the 10 games, the Lancers would have had to try their luck in the USHL Draft, a risk Omaha did not want to take.

“We didn’t have a real great position in the draft and we wanted him here,” Omaha head coach Mike Hastings said of securing Lucia. “We thought that would be the best way to get him.”

Lucia played on the weekends with the Lancers, but that’s not the true mark of his dedication. He went to extraordinary lengths to play on Tuesday nights in Omaha, a night that the Lancers often play on at the Mid-America Center.

“I’d fly down there Tuesday after school and I’d miss most of the warm-ups, put on my stuff, shoot a couple pucks, then be expected to play a game in arguably the best junior league in North America,” Lucia said in a phone interview.

Then after the game he’d fly from Omaha back to the Twin Cities and be in class the next day at Wayzata.

Lucia’s extraordinary effort to improve his game gave him a chance to gain a little junior hockey experience to help him make the decision whether to stay in high school for his senior season or play juniors.

“It was a pretty difficult decision, but [Mike Hastings] told me that it didn’t have to be finalized, that I could go and try out and if I didn’t feel I was ready or he didn’t feel I was ready to make that step after playing in those 10 games, I didn’t have to be committed to playing for them next season,” Lucia said. “It worked out really well because I got a taste of the league before I actually had to decide whether I wanted to play in it or not.”

One thing Lucia likes about the USHL is the commitment of each of the players to improving.

“They want to go on past high school, they actually aspire to excel,” Lucia said of his fellow USHL players. “Kids in high school hockey say they want to, but they never do anything about it.”

As a sophomore at Wayzata, Lucia scored 13 goals and 22 assists in 31 games. In his junior season, Lucia scored 27 goals and 36 assists in 24 games. Lucia firmly established himself as a high caliber player in Minnesota high school hockey over two years, but that means little in the USHL.

“Everyone is so smart in the USHL,” Lucia said. “You might think you’re a good player in high school, but you might just be middle of the pack when you go on to the USHL.

“You’ve really got to think quickly. You’ll get your head taken off if you do those high school moves.”

Former Lancers assistant coach Keith Fisher, now an assistant at Princeton University, kept in contact with Lucia after the left winger tried out for the Lancers after his sophomore season. Lucia knew he would not make the team, but chose to use it as an opportunity to gain valuable experience against superior players. Although Lucia was limited to 11 games with Lancers last season, Fisher had seen enough of Lucia to compliment his playmaking abilities and soft hands and especially his hockey sense.

“I think his hockey sense is his biggest strength,” Fisher said. “He’s got a big advantage in that one thing that’s hard to teach is hockey sense.

“A lot of guys, if they don’t have that, it’s hard to teach them, and Tony’s got that.”

Hastings is most impressed with Lucia’s determination and dedication.

“The best thing about him is he’s very focused on what he’s trying to do as a player,” Hastings said. “When you’re around these types of guys it’s easier to generate success, because when he comes to the rink, he comes with a purpose; when he goes to the classroom, he goes with a purpose.”

Lucia only had one goal in his 11 games last season, but he already has five goals and seven assists through 16 games this season, second on Omaha in scoring behind veteran Matt Schepke. Although Lucia had to fight through an injury he suffered during the high school season last year, he does not credit health with his increase in production.

“I think the most important thing is just being able to practice every day,” Lucia said. “I think if I had been able to practice last season, I could have played a better role.

“You get a lot out of practice because the coaches teach you so much in this league and you really learn a lot, you make strides in your game that way, not only physically, but also mentally. That helps you a lot in the USHL and moving on to the next level, because it’s not just about your talent, it’s about how you think the game as well.”

While Lucia thinks the game well, he does admit he has one skill in particular he needs to work on.

“I probably need to be a little bit quicker,” Lucia said. “I don’t have a great first two strides, that’s what a lot of coaches have told me, and I’ve been working on that.”

Fisher agreed, but is optimistic.

“He needs to get a little bit quicker, but that will come with leg strength and generally becoming bigger and stronger.”

Over a month into the USHL season, Hastings is not so certain that acceleration and quickness is Lucia’s real problem anymore.

“The biggest thing for Tony to be successful is to play the game with his feet moving,” Hastings said. “Once he sets his feet, he becomes an average player.

“When he brings his speed game, when he’s playing a real quick game, he brings everything to the table.”

Even before San Jose got to see the improved Tony Lucia playing in the USHL this season, the Sharks were sufficiently impressed to take him in the sixth round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft with the 193rd overall pick. Lucia was far from certain that he would even be drafted. He had talked with the Atlanta the day before and thought the Thrashers might take him, but while following the draft online, hunger eventually called and he drove down to Arby’s. While there he received a call from Keith Fisher congratulating him on being drafted. Lucia was ecstatic.

“It was one of those things where I had no expectation, so hearing the good news was that much better,” Lucia said.

“Some guys get predicted to go in the second round or third round and then if you don’t get picked you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to get picked?’ And it’s kind of a letdown,” said Lucia. “But for me, it was such a good feeling because I didn’t think it was going to happen, it was such an honor.”

On top of dedicated, add grounded and humble to describe Lucia.

“It just kind of makes you want to work harder,” Lucia said. “To know that other people look at me and see that I have potential to play in the NHL is a very great honor.”

Like most kids, much of Lucia’s character comes from his parents. But Tony is a special case. His father is Don Lucia, head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The younger Lucia began skating while his father was the head coach for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he led the Nanooks to a Great West Conference Championship. The Lucias moved to Colorado Springs when Don became head coach of Colorado College, where he was two-time WCHA Coach of the Year and the Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year in 1994. The University of Minnesota called upon Don Lucia to turn around their program in 1999, and four years later the Golden Gophers had won two consecutive NCAA Championships. At all of these stops, Tony gained invaluable hockey knowledge.

“I used to go down in between periods to the locker, and I think I gained a lot of my hockey sense just sitting and listening to him talk to his team about what things were going wrong and things that were going right, what they needed to change and just pick up little things like that that most kids don’t have the opportunity to do,” the younger Lucia said.

The younger Lucia also works hard academically, something his father always reinforced.

“He always stresses that academics comes first, because you never know how far hockey is going to take you, and if it does take you to becoming your career, you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you, if you have a career-ending injury,” Lucia said. “So you want to prepare yourself for the real world and give yourself the best chance for you and your family.”

Lucia will once again listen to his dad during intermissions starting in 2007, when he becomes a Golden Gopher. The younger Lucia decided on Sunday, Nov. 6 to play for his father at the University of Minnesota, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune Nov. 9. Notre Dame, Colorado College, New Hampshire, and Michigan had all been pursuing Lucia as well, but Lucia reportedly decided to “follow his heart.”

Lucia will be following in the footsteps of former Lancers Mike Howe, Evan Kaufmann, Chris Harrington, Jake Fleming, Dan Welch, Joey Martin, and Keith Ballard in playing at the University of Minnesota for Don Lucia. Because Tony has only verbally committed to playing at the University of Minnesota, and has not signed a national letter of intent, coach Lucia cannot comment on the signing.

Before Lucia puts on the Golden Gopher jersey, he may put on a Team USA jersey. He is currently one of 42 players under consideration by Team USA to play at the Viking Cup Dec. 26 through Jan. 2 in Camrose, Alberta. The team, to be coached by Waterloo Black Hawks head coach P.K. O’Handley, will likely be announced in the next couple weeks, according to O’Handley. The opportunity to play for Team USA would fulfill a lifelong ambition of Lucia’s.

“When I learned I’d been selected to the tryouts, I was just honored, because it’s always been a dream of mine to play for Team USA at one point or another, whether it be growing up in selects, World Juniors, or the Olympics,” Lucia said. “I’ve always wanted to pull the USA sweater over my head, and this is going to be one of my best chances, I feel, to do that.”

Far from an offensive prima donna, Lucia forechecks and backchecks consistently, finishes his checks, blocks shots, and is willing to battle around the net. These traits allow Lucia to excel in any role given to him, and could be his ticket to Team USA’s Viking Cup team.

Dedication and commitment launched Lucia into the USHL, will take him to the University of Minnesota, could take him to Team USA, and just may earn his way to San Jose.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.