Though news broke earlier this week that Don Lucia would be named head coach for the 2014 U.S. National Junior Team, USA Hockey made it official Saturday with a press conference in St. Paul, Minn.
Lucia will be joined behind the bench by Greg Brown, Boston College associate head coach; Bob Motzko, head coach at St. Cloud State; David Lassonde, assistant coach at the University of Denver, and Dan Muse, assistant coach at Yale University, will serve as a video coach.
The decision caught some hockey insiders I spoke with off guard. Lucia is obviously one of the big-name coaches in college hockey so it wasn’t known that this was a job he had interest in, but Lucia left no doubt Saturday that this is something he wanted.
Lucia said that now that professionals are in the Olympics, he figured the World Juniors was the next best thing.
“I’m honored to have the opportunity to represent our country as the head coach of the National Junior Team,” he said, also expressing his enthusiasm for the opportunity won’t be much different than when a player throws on the USA jersey.
Lucia even said he offered his services when USA Hockey was looking for a coach for the 2013 team, but USA Hockey felt this year would make him a better fit.
Team USA general manager Jim Johannson cited Lucia’s big-game experience, familiarity with coaching on an Olympic-sized sheet and the up-tempo style of play his Gopher teams have shown as big reasons he was chosen.
“We’re extremely pleased to have Don as the head coach of our National Junior Team,” Johannson said in a statement. “He has developed some of the best American-born players over the last 25 years and has excelled at each stop in his career. He’s a proven winner and without question one of our nation’s premier coaches.”
As one of the premier coaches in the country, expectations will be high for Lucia, but the World Juniors is an entirely different animal from his norm.
It sounded as though Lucia is ready for that new challenge, stressing the importance of building the right team and not being afraid to make adjustments.
Surprisingly, despite his illustrious career, Lucia’s international resume is light. He was a camp coach at the last National Junior Evaluation Camp to get a taste of this type of environment and style.
Additionally, two of Lucia’s three assistant coaches will be making their Team USA debuts in Brown and Motzko. Lassonde and Muse were both part of Phil Housley’s 2013 staff, though.
Lucia explained that he picked a staff that had experience on a big stage.
As a coach at Boston College, Brown has had no shortage of big-game experience with three national titles to his name. Meanwhile, Motzko just led St. Cloud State to its first WCHA regular-season title, which the Huskies shared with Lucia’s Golden Gophers. Motzko also was on Don Lucia’s Minnesota staff for back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003.
What will be most interesting to watch with Lucia’s team is the player selection. As a staunch supporter and advocate for college hockey, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Lucia will prefer college players over major juniors. However, with this player group there will have to be some Canadian Hockey League players on the roster to have success.
Lucia said he will lean heavily on the scouting of Johannson and director of player personnel Tim Taylor, who have proven the last several years that where a player plays won’t matter nearly as much as what he brings to the table. It’s still Lucia’s team and he’ll have a lot of veto power on players, but he should have faith in the two guys who have built each of the last two gold medal-winning teams.
The good news for USA fans is that Lucia is a seasoned coach. He has been part of championship teams, he understands what crushing pressure feels like and he’s had teams make runs in the short bursts of tournaments. He said a lot of the right things in the press conference in terms of how he is approaching the job as well.
The U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp roster will be announced in June. There’s a good group of players from the 1994 and 1995 birth years, but this should be a very heavily 19-year-old team by looking at the player pool as it stands now.
USA Hockey has already lost a few candidates to the NHL and is likely to lose a few more next year, so decisions will be tough and the depth might not be where it needs to be, but the U.S. is more than capable of fielding a competitive team.
With the coaching staff selected, the March to Malmö begins in earnest.