He may not have the name recognition of others who transitioned from NHL player to executive, but Don Luce is well known in hockey circles for his ability to recognize talent.
While working as the Buffalo Sabres director of player development, the same position as he currently holds with the Philadelphia Flyers, Luce and his scouting staff were credited with discovering players such as Alexander Mogilny, Maxim Afinogenov, Martin Biron, Brian Campbell and, more recently, Jason Pominville.
Luce’s professional success began as a player in the Ontario Hockey Association with the Kitchener Rangers, before being taken by the New York Rangers in the third round (14th overall) in the 1966 NHL draft. He spent time with the Rangers and Detroit Red Wings before being moved to Buffalo prior to the 1971-72 season. After posting 76 points in the 1974-75 season, Luce was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy for dedication, sportsmanship and perseverance.
“It was just a great honor,” Luce said. “It’s hard to describe. Getting an award like that from the league, it was really something special.”
Another special part of Luce’s career was his off-ice relationship with Hall of Famer Tim Horton. Luce was first called up from the minors around the same time Horton was dealt to New York from Toronto and the two new guys naturally got to know each other.
“He was just a great guy, a great mentor,” Luce said. “I had a sweet tooth for donuts and after the game we would go out to the donut shops and get some. We became close and our families became close. We would spend some time together in the summertime. We were really good friends.”
After an NHL career that spanned 13 seasons and nearly 900 games, Luce moved to coaching and then the front office, a transition eased by his playing experience.
“It’s like a hockey team,” he said of arranging his front office staff. “You need a team effort by your scouting staff and everyone that’s involved. You need to get everybody involved and willing to speak up and be a part of it. If that happens, you’re going to come up with better results…That actually helped me, because I was with people who I could trust and I knew they were going to give me their best.”
Having been in hockey management for parts of four decades and now working with the Philadelphia Flyers (the team that defeated his Buffalo Sabres in the 1975 Stanley Cup final), Luce clearly recognizes the tough parts of his job.
“The challenges are trying to get the young players to become the best they can be,” Luce said. “It’s a very tough transition. Mostly these young players are coming from leagues where they were the dominant player. They think they know how to handle the NHL, but they usually don’t. The amount of work they have to put in is much more than any of them realize. The biggest challenge is to get them to become the best player in the shortest amount of time. We want them to put in the effort to become the best player they can be.”
However, the challenges do not counterbalance the part of Luce’s job that he loves the most.
“The best part is simply seeing these kids succeed.”