How many times do you hear about a coach who’s about to host a weekend series inviting the opposing team’s coaching staff over to his house for dinner on Thursday?
That’s John Hill’s relationship with Minnesota coach Don Lucia — personal before professional.
That’s not to say that it won’t be all business for the first-year Alaska-Anchorage coach once the puck drops Friday and Saturday night for games against the Gophers at Sullivan Arena.
It just may not be business as usual.
“Don means an awful lot to me as a friend and as a former boss,” said Hill, who spent six years with Lucia — four at Colorado College and two at Minnesota.
“I just have the utmost respect for Don as a person and as a coach. He was very instrumental in my growth as a hockey coach. Don has many qualities that one would do well to emulate.”
But Hill also said he might have something to prove to Lucia in a larger sense than just this weekend’s series.
“I hope down the road one day that Don is proud of me for the job I’m doing as a head coach,” he said.
Said Lucia, “I think he’s already doing it.”
Hill has his team on a roll as it enters the weekend. The Seawolves are 5-1-2 in their last eight games after taking three points from a weekend at North Dakota.
They’re tied for fifth place going into the weekend, just three points behind third-place Minnesota, though UAA has played two more games. The coaches, in their historically moderate wisdom, picked Anchorage to finish 10th in the league this year.
The better-than-anticipated season made the old boss take notice.
“I think he’s gone in there and done what I would have done. He’s let the kids play,” Lucia said. “They’re smiling, they’re enjoying themselves, they’re enjoying the game.”
Maybe that’s an extension of the coach.
Tickets Out Of Town
WCHA members voted last weekend to alter the agreement under which Alaska-Anchorage pays for airline tickets for conference opponents to get to Anchorage.
It’s a move that will save the UAA athletics department $20,000 and up each year, but it is forcing the smaller league schools to take a look at their finances.
Under the 1992 agreement by which Alaska-Anchorage was admitted to the league, the school would pay for 25 airplane tickets for WCHA opponents to fly to Alaska. Minnesota State-Mankato, which joined the league in 1999, is exempt.
The 8-2 vote last weekend allows for a gradual scaling back of that system, so that by the 2005-06 season, UAA will foot the bill for only 12 tickets.
“It’s something we’ve worked awfully hard on,” Anchorage athletics director Steve Cobb told the Anchorage Daily News. “It’s a good win.”
Schools with limited budgets, however, will feel the pinch in the pocketbooks.
“I had to cut $180,000 from my athletic budget this year. The timing is terrible, let’s put it that way,” Michigan Tech athletics director Rick Yeo said. “But we’ll work through it. It’s something we accept and we’ll move on. We’re glad to see that they [UAA] are doing that well, we just wish we were doing as well as they are.”
The plan will cut the ticket allotment to 19 next season; to 16 in the 2003-04 season; and to 13 in the 2004-05 season before the final cut to 12.
When UAA was accepted into the WCHA, then-Anchorage athletics director Ron Petro assured the league it wouldn’t sway from the 25-ticket deal.
“It was made very clear at that time by their athletic director that, under no circumstances would they ever change their opinion as far as offering 25 tickets,” Yeo said. “So, no, we are not happy with that decision, but a lot of the schools want to help Alaska — they’re struggling themselves, so it’s a matter of trying to help them out.”
The 25-ticket arrangement was orchestrated as a concession to get into the league in 1992, UAA associate athletics director Tim McDiffett told the Daily News.
“We felt like it was worth it to get into the league.”
Times change, though, and so did the financial workings of the WCHA. The league has prospered, but Anchorage has experienced cutbacks.
“We’re very competive people, but at the same time have a sense of, we’re all in this thing together,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “It’s no good if we start to develop the haves and the have-nots. To a degree, we have to be concerned about one another, and I think that’s what came out in this thing.”
The Barn Turns 30
Ask Lucia about the MacInnes Student Ice Arena and he’ll give you the thought that keeps running through his mind about the venerable rink.
Or should that be the thought about the part of the rink that almost went through his mind?
Michigan Tech is celebrating MacInnes Arena’s 30th birthday this weekend. By a fate of scheduling, the Huskies host Minnesota-Duluth, the team they hosted in the building’s opening weekend, Jan. 14-15, 1972.
A mere mention of the MacInnes Arena or Houghton, Mich., puts Lucia on a trip down memory lane. He recalls staying at the old Douglas House, where the floors always creaked, on trips to Houghton as a player with Notre Dame in the 1970s.
He remembers the various connections on puddle jumpers the team had to make just to get to Houghton, and the time spent loading the gear into the bottom of the plane out on a dark, windy tarmac.
But Lucia’s most vivid memory is shattering.
“I can remember getting run through the Plexiglas up there as a player, the one year they had touch icing,” he said.
That’ll leave an impression.
“The guy was a stride behind me the whole way, and I was so slow I don’t know why the guy couldn’t catch me,” Lucia said. “He ended up hitting me and the glass shattered. I remember [Notre Dame coach] Lefty [Smith] was so mad he was ready to pull the team off the ice and not go back out because no penalty was called.”
It’s just one of a countless number of memorable events in the building, which underwent a $2 million facelift two years ago. That renovation included a new locker room facility for the Huskies.
For a 30-year-old building — “It doesn’t seem that long ago that we moved in there,” Yeo said — it still gets its fair share of compliments.
“We have done some new things to it, but it’s really in good shape for 30 years,” Yeo said. “I’m very impressed with the custodial staff here. They’ve really kept it up well.
“It’s still a really nice rink to watch hockey from.”
Hill hasn’t spent a whole lot of time in Houghton, but when he does, he takes in the arena’s history.
“I never met [legendary Tech coach] John MacInnes, but every time we go there I spend time looking at the pictures and the little monument they have in the corner of the rink for him,” Hill said.
McLeod said he remembers how difficult it was to play in MacInnes Arena and its predecessor, Dee Stadium.
“Going from Dee Stadium, they had such an aura in the building,” McLeod said. “Going over to the MacInnes ice center, they were worried about how that was going to work for them. Let me tell you, they hardly missed a beat because it was really a hard place to play, no matter what kind of team you had.”
St. Cloud State captain Jon Cullen suffered another injury last Saturday to the medial collateral ligament that kept him out for six weeks earlier this season.
He’s expected to be out for at least four weeks.
Never Too Early
Too early to hype next weekend’s Denver-Minnesota series? Nah.
Gophers-Pioneers III and IV go down next weekend at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, and the Gophers might need both of those games to stay in the race for first place in the WCHA.
The third-place Gophers are 12 points behind frontrunner Denver with two games at hand. They’ll pick up those games this weekend while Denver’s playing nonconference games against Bemidji State and Air Force.
In other words, the best-case scenario for Minnesota is an eight-point deficit going into next weekend’s series.
That’s not even throwing St. Cloud State into the equation. The Huskies are in second place at 29 points, one behind Denver but with two more games played than the Pioneers and four more than the Gophers. They’re also in nonconference play this weekend, at Brown and Providence.
One For All
Having played the part the whole season, meanwhile, the Pioneers are finally tops in everything.
No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings, but we’ve known about that for a while.
They’re also No. 1 in the WCHA and No. 1 in the USCHO.com poll this week, thanks to Minnesota-Duluth’s surprise victory over St. Cloud State last Friday.
Three aces is a good hand for Denver, but its players aren’t expecting that to win the whole pot.
“By no means are we content with how things are going,” Denver defenseman Jesse Cook told the Denver Post. “There are so many mature guys on this team. By no means are we overwhelmed about all this. We knew we had a good team. We expected this. But it is certainly exciting right now.”
That might sound arrogant, but it’s the way the game has to be played. To say you’re thrilled with what you’ve accomplished by the middle of January is selling your season a bit short.
And maybe a team that’s 20-2 deserves to be just a bit arrogant, anyway.
Stirring the Pot
Jeff Sauer might not be making many friends in his farewell tour.
The Wisconsin coach, who has announced he’ll retire from coaching at the end of the season, has made it clear that he wasn’t impressed with Denver, though the Pioneers swept the Badgers in Denver two weekends ago.
Now, Sauer’s thoughts on Minnesota, last weekend’s opponent:
“I was not that impressed with Minnesota, they’re not a Denver or St. Cloud right now,” he told reporters at his Monday news conference.
This week’s opponent is Minnesota State-Mankato. Next week’s comment? Who knows?
T.J. Caig joined Minnesota-Duluth last weekend — should he take credit for the Bulldogs’ first WCHA victory? — to high expectations.
When your name ranks above Paul Kariya, you get high expectations.
Caig, a 5-11, 190-pound center, joined the Bulldogs after a record-setting stint with the Penticton Panthers of the British Columbia Hockey League. He is the Panthers’ all-time leading scorer, ranking 15 points ahead of Kariya, the former Maine superstar who’s doing pretty darn well right now in the NHL.
In 36 junior games this season, Caig had 37 goals (he led the BCHL when he left) and 39 assists.
Completing the Cycle
After this weekend’s series with Minnesota, the Seawolves will have completed the tour of the WCHA. The Gophers are the only league team they haven’t played, so after Saturday’s game, they’ll have a pretty good idea what exactly the rest of this league is all about.
“Now, it’s like the final piece of the puzzle because we’re going to start winding down,” Hill said. “You start to talk about the future and who you may have to play in the playoffs.”
Make a note of that. It’s January, and a UAA coach is looking forward to the WCHA playoffs. That’s the same WCHA playoffs in which the Seawolves have not only never won a series, they’ve never won a game.
Hill isn’t afraid to share with anyone that his team’s goal is to make it to the Final Five. This season. Right now.
It was assumed the Seawolves were going to have to go on the road to do so, but even that’s not a given anymore.
They’re one of five teams that are going to fight for the last two home-ice spots. With 15 points and a tie for fifth place, they’re in a good position but need to go to work to assure themselves another weekend at home.
Hill’s still a bit leery about the prospects of a top-five finish.
“Home ice is certainly everybody’s goal,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was realistic at the beginning of the year because I didn’t know that much about our team. And I still think because of our travel, it’s going to be a longshot. But the closer we can stay to that fifth seed, the better I think it’ll be for us when the playoffs do begin.”
Can’t Bury ‘Em
After this weekend’s series with Wisconsin, Mankato has two weeks of practice before it enters a 10-game run to the end of the regular season (the last two games being non-conference ones against Nebraska-Omaha, mind you).
Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said he has no specific plans for those two weeks before a Feb. 1 and 2 series against Michigan Tech. He’d sure like it, though, if some scoring punch could materialize in that time.
They’ve been shut out in two of their last four games and have scored more than two goals only once in their last eight games (a 5-1 victory at Alabama-Huntsville on Jan. 5).
It doesn’t help that the three of the opponents in that time were Denver, St. Cloud State and Colorado College, but it highlights the Mavs’ need for someone to be a scorer.
“We’ve struggled to score goals. I don’t know that there’s a whole bunch to do to teach goalscoring,” Jutting said. “We’ve been getting opportunities, we just haven’t been able to get it in the net.”
B.J. Abel leads the team with 21 points, but 18 of those are on assists. Tim Jackman (13 goals), Shane Joseph (11) and Jerry Cunningham (nine) are the goalscorers, but they’re not getting a lot of help.
Jackman, Joseph and Cunningham have 44 percent of the Mavericks’ goals this season.
Still, they enter the series with the Badgers on a high note after a 2-1 victory last Saturday night at Colorado College.
“With the schedule set the way it’s set up for us, we had a stretch there where we were playing against teams that are the top teams in the country every night,” Jutting said. “It was nice to get a win against a quality team like Colorado.”
Lucia is going to have to carry two versions of his line chart with him to Anchorage this weekend.
The game disqualification penalty to Gophers forward Jeff Taffe last Saturday will keep Minnesota’s second-leading scorer from Friday night’s game against the Seawolves. He’ll be back for Saturday’s game.
There’s the thing. The Gophers have spent the whole week practicing two ways: the with-Taffe way and the without-Taffe way.
“The hardest thing is it really makes for a disruptive week of practice,” Lucia said. “It would have been easier had it happened on Friday and he can’t play Saturday. Now you go the week, you know he can play Saturday, now what do you do with the lines all week? Now what do you do with specialties?”
Taffe leads the Gophers with nine power-play goals, so his brief loss will probably be most obvious there.
Sitting It Out
Two notable absentees from North Dakota’s 4-4 tie with Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday night in Grand Forks were Brandon Bochenski and David Lundbohm, two of the team’s top five scorers.
Sioux coach Dean Blais made it perfectly clear he’s looking for effort from his players in this season, which can certainly now be called a rebuilding one.
“I’ll continue to play the players who work hard, win or lose,” Blais told reporters after Saturday’s game.
Instead of returning to Anchorage between consecutive trips to the Midwest, the Seawolves will stay in Duluth, Minn., after next weekend’s series with the Bulldogs. They play at Wisconsin in two weeks.
Any break in travel should be a boost for UAA down the stretch. After the Wisconsin series, the Seawolves return home for a series with Mankato; head back to the Midwest for a series at St. Cloud State; and return home for series with Colorado College and Alaska-Fairbanks.
“I think we’ll be well rested come March,” Hill said. “I don’t think we can use travel as an excuse if we fall short of our goals.”
Speaking of traveling, McLeod said he’s leaving this weekend for a brief trip to Italy, to begin advance planning for the league all-star team’s trip there in August.
He Said It
“I think it’s a tremendous challenge for our program. We’re playing good hockey as of late, and Minnesota’s one of the top teams in the country. I think it’s going to be a good measuring stick for our players.”
— Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill, on this weekend’s series against Minnesota.