Mario Lucia follows heart, returns to Notre Dame hockey

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Plenty of reasons could have lured Mario Lucia away from Notre Dame.

The senior’s head and heart kept him on the Irish ice.

Hockey, whether it’s on the professional, junior, or collegiate level, has some unique twists when it comes to the business side of the game.

Seniors, according to Irish coach Jeff Jackson, are a rare commodity in college hockey. If a player is worth his weight in shaved ice off a Zamboni, he’s on a fast track to the NHL after his junior season – at the latest. Contracts are an issue. Impatient NHL execs can be a factor.

Lucia, a 6-foot-3, 206-pound left wing for Notre Dame, has a plan as his senior season is set to begin Friday night with an exhibition at home against the University of Guelph.

Last year’s leading goal scorer (21) and No. 3 point producer (32), Lucia was drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Wild out of high school in 2011. The Wild retain his rights.

“Getting to the NHL is very hard,” said Lucia. “I want to get my degree and help my team win a national championship. I felt this was the best step for me in my development. This is what I wanted to do.”

Besides input from Jackson, Lucia got advice from his father, Don, a former Notre Dame player who is now the head coach at the University of Minnesota.

“This was Mario’s decision,” said Jackson. “He’s grown a lot with those (four) senior classmates, learning to love Notre Dame … It’s another year of training, getting physically stronger.”

“It came down to: What’s the best opportunity?” Lucia said “I could have gone and played in the minors for the whole year. The Minnesota Wild have a great team this year. They only have a couple new guys who made their roster.

“Coming back here, being a leader, playing an important role – I wouldn’t know what my role would be there. I felt (coming back) was best for my development.”

That role is destined to increase. Jackson said he envisions Lucia making an impact on special teams, as well as a winger on the first line.

“He’s a goal-scorer. That’s going to be very important for us this year,” said Jackson. “Mario’s got that innate ability to get to the right place at the right time and score goals.”

“It’s being in the right area at the right time and having the hockey sense to know where the puck usually ends up,” Lucia said, trying to explain how that instinct happened. “Some of it’s luck, but some of it’s being around hockey my whole life, growing up in a hockey family.”

“He can make a play,” Jackson said. “He can set up other people to score. He’s gotten better with his game away from the puck. We’re even going to give him a try on penalty kill. He’s got a good stick and he’s lanky.

“I don’t want him sitting on the bench for long periods of time.”

“(I want to) be more consistent on the ice; being a player night-in and night-out who’s the best player on the ice,” Lucia said. “Being a leader for my team and a guy my coach can depend on (is important).

“(Consistency) is being mentally focused every game. I’m here for a reason. I have to put out my best every day, whether it’s practice, workouts. In the game, I always want to work as hard as I can.

“Whether it’s with the Wild or anywhere else, there are people who are working just as hard and want to be in your spot.”

His work will be done on campus for one more year.

For all the right reasons.

Notre Dame schedule

October: 9, Guelph (exhibition), 11; at U.S. National Team (Plymouth, Mich.); 16-17, at Penn State; 23-24, Minnesota-Duluth; 31-Nov. 1: at UConn.

November: 6-7: Minnesota; 12-13: Northeastern; 20-21: at UMass-Lowell; 27-28: Shillelagh Tournament (Harvard, Western Michigan and RPI).

December: 4-5: UMass; 10: at Boston College.

January: 1-2: at Denver; 8: Western Michigan; 9: at Western Michigan; 15-16: Merrimack; 22-23: New Hampshire; 29: Boston College.

February: 5-6: at Vermont; 12-13: Maine; 19-20: at Providence; 26-27: Boston University.

March 4-6: Hockey East Tournament first round; 11-13: Hockey East Tournament second round; 18-19: Hockey East Tournament championship round.

Notre Dame left wing Mario Lucia, right, chases a rebound in front of St. Cloud State goalie Ryan Faragher (29) during the first period of an NCAA West college regional hockey game in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt) 

LEADERS: In an unusual move, Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson named all five seniors — Steven Fogarty, Mario Lucia, Andy Ryan, Sam Herr, Thomas DiPauli and Nick Stasack — captains this season.

RARE FROSH: The normal route to a major college hockey program is through the juniors, post-high school. Dylan Malmquist, a left winger from Edina, Minn., made the rare jump from high school straight to Notre Dame. Jackson is counting on him to make an immediate impact.

DRAFT NOTICE: Nine current Notre Dame players were drafted by NHL teams out of high school. Those teams retain their rights to those players throughout college. They include: Fogarty (New York Rangers), Lucia (Minnesota Wild), DiPauli (Washington Capitals), Connor Hurley (Buffalo Sabres), Cal Petersen (Buffalo Sabres), Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins), Jake Evans (Montreal Canadiens), Joe Wegwerth (Florida Panthers) and Dennis Gilbert (Chicago Blackhawks).

TOUGH SCHEDULE: Notre Dame will play four of the top 10 teams in the preseason poll. They are: 1. Boston College, 2. Minnesota-Duluth, 3. Boston University, 9. Minnesota.

NO RESPECT?: With 15 freshmen and sophomores on the 25-man roster, Notre Dame was selected to finish seventh in Hockey East, according to the league’s preseason poll.