- Patiently working his way to the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, the son of longtime Golden Gophers coach Don Lucia is a homegrown draft pick and a source of local pride.
When the Minnesota Wild draft a Minnesotan—as they have nine times since Chuck Fletcher took over as general manager in 2009—their fans often know a lot about that player, and expectations can follow his elevated status. The State of Hockey is one of America's most rabid markets, and there's a propensity to claim a certain ownership over homegrown talent. Fans annually work themselves into a froth over the possibility of acquiring a Minnesotan via trade or free agency, talking about them with the hashtag #OneOfUs. That puts a player like 2011 second-round draft pick Mario Lucia in a distinct position.
"When I went on the road tour you can tell that [fans] know [the Minnesotans] better than the other guys," he says after a July development camp scrimmage. "It's nice, I guess. Minnesota hockey, it's like Texas football. It's great to have such a good fan base and such a good culture of hockey in-state."
Lucia, 22, might be serving his time as a native son little more vigorously than most. Though he was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, he grew up in the State of Hockey where his dad, Don Lucia, has coached the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers for the last 17 seasons, the majority of Mario's life.
Yet Lucia, a fleet winger with some size (6' 2", 183) and excellent offensive skills, has remained level-headed. He doesn't sound like he feels the pressure, and he certainly hasn't felt the need to rush into his professional career. While at Wayzata (Minn.) High School, he decided to spend his senior year playing for Penticton of the junior BCHL, ranking second on the team in scoring (42 goals, 51 assists in 56 games) as the Vees went on to win the RBC Cup. After taking the bronze medal with Team USA at the U19 World Junior A Challenge, Lucia went to Notre Dame, his father's alma mater, for a full four years (2012-16) before signing his first pro contract with the Wild this spring.
Even at development camp, where he faced the media regularly and acted as a leader for the team's young prospect group, Lucia appeared calm and expressed a willingness to take the time necessary to continue his development. Maybe having a dad who has nurtured so many NHL players including recent members of the Wild such as Thomas Vanek, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder, Keith Ballard, and Nick Seeler that gave him a healthy respect for the process.
That patience is remarkable. It's rare that a player of Lucia's skill level remains in college for four years despite having the option to start his pro career at any time. Even now, having played nine games with the AHL's Iowa Wild at the end of last season, he doesn't express a need to rush to NHL ice, though the desire is there. "I want to show that I'm making progress toward being a future NHL player," he says. "I keep that in the back of my mind and keep working every day."
There are new coaches in town, with Bruce Boudreau taking over behind the Wild's bench, and Lucia sees possibilities in the changeover. "New coaches, new opportunity," he says. "You have to put your best foot forward and show them that you belong."
Lucia got off to a good start during his first stint with Iowa, scoring two goals and four points in nine games to close out the season. (Iowa failed to qualify for the AHL playoffs). "It's nice to get my feet wet down there and know what the competition is like," he says, "to know what type of game it is. It's a lot different style than college. It's a lot more controlled."
Though Lucia is still a work in progress, the Wild recognize his upside. "He's a coachable kid," says Brad Bombardir, the team's director of player development. "And the things he does well, you just can't really coach. Offensively, he's so gifted and talented in the offensive zone. He sees plays quicker than most other people see them."
Lucia's positional play and defensive responsibility were notably improved during his senior season with Notre Dame, even if his offensive production lagged a bit. After scoring 21 goals and 31 points (0.74 points per game) the prior year, he posted just 12 goals and 24 points last season (0.65 per game).
"He's gotten better in certain areas. He has to get better in those areas still, but there has been a progression," says Bombardir. "He has had the opportunity to get better and he's done it."
The expectation is that Lucia will start in Iowa this season, and he'll have plenty of competition there. There are few open spots on the NHL roster, and the Wild is about to see its best influx of talent at the pro level since 2012 when the organization's AHL roster featured, at different times, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba.
This season, Lucia is part of a promising crop of forwards that includes Alex Tuch, Sam Anas, Adam Gilmour, Pavel Jenys, and Chase Lang. There are still others in the organization who are hoping to make the leap to the big club, such as 2015 first-round draft pick Joel Eriksson Ek, who would prefer to see time in the NHL over returning to Sweden for another season with Färjestad BK.
And then there are the Wild's young fringe players like Jordan Schroeder, Tyler Graovac, Christoph Bertschy, Zack Mitchell, Brady Brassart, and Grayson Downing, all of whom are looking to seize an NHL role this coming season.
Lucia has the tools to eventually land a job with the Wild. His sober perspective on individual progression and his determination to get better should make him a player who becomes an NHL regular in the coming years. When he does, he'll find himself skating just 22 miles from where he went to high school and eight miles from where his father coaches. He's about as homegrown as it gets.