Don Lucia has found retired bliss up in the Last Frontier.
The winningest coach in history for both the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks was taking a breather after catching a bear’s share of salmon out of the Kenai River in the fishing and hunting mecca of Soldotna, a town of 4,000 located a hundred miles southwest of Anchorage as the bald eagle flies.
“I don’t know if this is heaven, but I can see it from here,” said Lucia, who met his future wife Joyce Greimann while coaching in Fairbanks in the early 1980s. “I always say I came to Alaska for a year, and left 12 years later with a wife and four kids.” Alaska’s prodigal son-in-law set off from the Last Frontier to make his mark in Division I hockey, a legacy etched in stone from consecutive NCAA titles with Minnesota in 2002 and 2003, and a tantalizing near miss with Colorado College in 1995. But his heart remains just a short flight from the Arctic Circle.
As Lucia returns to his summertime Nirvana, he finds Alaska’s hockey landscape in a state of tumult. As every Division I fan knows, due to a statewide financial crisis, Alaska’s two teams are likely to merge in 2020-21, and whatever program emerges will be searching for a new conference in 2021-22. The once-proud UAF Nanooks, a program that had two hockey alums hoist the Stanley Cup this past June, made the NCAA regionals in 2010, and scalped three No. 1 ranked teams in 2005-06, is now teetering on the brink of extinction.
Lucia has an inflated IQ on Alaska’s current sports landscape: the exact breakdown of the two schools’ combined sports teams (13 for Anchorage, 10 for Fairbanks), when the University Regents will be meeting next (second week of September), and the fact that talks are projected with the NCAA to hash it all out. It is no coincidence. Lucia met with the UAF chairman Daniel White this May and has been placed on a committee to lend his expertise on potential on-campus facilities and other hockey matters. As one of the original builders of college hockey in Alaska, Lucia now feels tremors in the foundation. He remains, however, cautiously optimistic.
“I’m hopeful that hockey can be maintained up there, but it’s tenuous,” said Lucia, who knows full well about how seven WCHA schools abandoned Alaska ,and the state’s financial chaos. “It’s a bit of a double whammy.”
Lucia also knows first-hand how much good college hockey has been for the 48th state. “It’s been 40 years that there’s been hockey at Fairbanks and Anchorage. It’s helped the growth of [youth] hockey tremendously in Alaska. Countless kids go on to play college hockey, some to play in the National Hockey League.”
Lucia does not exaggerate. Native Alaskan Scott Gomez, a huge fan of Lucia, won the 1995 Stanley Cup in New Jersey alongside former Alaska Anchorage captain Mike Peluso. When Lucia was battling for recruits up in Fairbanks, he got a tip from Michigan’s Red Berenson about a high-scoring defenseman from the Detroit area and landed blue chipper Shawn Chambers. Chambers spent two seasons developing in Fairbanks before going on to the pros, where he hoisted Stanley Cups with both New Jersey and Dallas. Lucia has learned that Alaska is a unique fit and not for every recruit.
“If somebody’s coming up here looking for the bright lights and the big city, obviously this wouldn’t be the place for them. But for somebody who likes the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and everything that Alaska has to offer, it’s the perfect place.”
Rustic woodsmen do not leap off the page of the Nanooks current freshman class. The incoming gang of 10 is dominated by four 20-something Latvians who will arrive jet-lagged by the three-stop, 18-hour odyssey to Anchorage. But if you scour the list, you’ll find one bio that appears to be the perfect fit: Chase Dubois, raised across the border in Williams Lake, British Columbia, a mere 1,800 miles south along the Alaska highway.
Dubois and some of the other Fairbanks newbies will be the nucleus of the new world order of DI hockey in Alaska. It’s a paradigm that rings familiar to Lucia, who coached the Nanooks as an independent until his final year. “If they do get through [the current] crisis, you may have to be an independent again, like we were back in the day,” Lucia said.
It is with no shortage of poetic justice that the man who helped lead the Nanooks out of the woods back in the early 1990s, is back on the scene a generation later, prepared to help out once again in a time when he is needed more than ever.
“As I tell my wife, it’s kind of back to the future for us.”