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A bond that remains strong

Former Golden Gophers Potulny, Lucia discuss their respective careers

Former Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny (left) talks strategy with his Golden Gophers team as head coach Don Lucia (center) looks on during the NCAA National Championship against Union April 12, 2014 in Philadelphia. Potulny is now the head coach at Northern Michigan University and Lucia is the CCHA Commissioner. (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics)
Former Minnesota head menÕs hockey coach Don Lucia (left) and former assistant coach Grant Potulny watch the action unfold in front of them during an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 National Development Team Oct. 14, 2016 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Lucia is now the CCHA Commissioner and Potulny is the head coach at Northern Michigan University. (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics)
Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Grant Potulny served as an assistant coach with his alma mater, the Universiy of Minnesota, from 2009-2017. He served under head coach Don Lucia, who is now commisioner of the CCHA, the league NMU now competes in. (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota athletics)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Journal Sports Writer Ryan Stieg takes a look at the careers of former University of Minnesota men’s hockey player Grant Potulny and former head coach Don Lucia. Over more than two decades, they’ve gone from a player-head coach relationship to an assistant coach- head coach one with the Golden Gophers and now, a new form as Northern Michigan University head coach-CCHA Commissioner. This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 appeared in Friday’s edition of the Journal and focused on the tandem’s role in the Gophers’ 2002 National Championship.

By RYAN STIEG

Journal Sports Writer

MARQUETTE — Twenty years ago, Don Lucia and Grant Potulny were forever connected in University of Minnesota men’s hockey history as they helped the Golden Gophers end a national title drought that went back to 1979.

As head coach, Lucia recruited Potulny to come to the Gophers and he became the first signee from outside of the state since the mid-1980s. Potulny would famously go on to score the overtime goal to win that elusive fourth national title during his sophomore year in 2002.

Eight seasons after that big championship victory, the pair reunited once again with Potulny, now the Northern Michigan University head coach, joining Lucia’s staff as an assistant coach after he retired from pro hockey. He said before he became a coach, he brought a satellite dish across the country to watch his brother, Ryan, play for the Gophers and he just stayed hooked.

“So even when he graduated, I still watched all the games and would talk to the coaching staff intermittently and stuff like that,” Potulny said in a recent interview. “There was a moment that one of them said ‘What are you gonna do next year?’ I think they were asking me ‘Where are you gonna play next year?’ and I was like ‘Well, I don’t know. ‘I feel like maybe it’s time that I kind of move on.’ I had two kids at this point, and I could still be playing for sure. I probably could play four or five more years, but I was almost like ‘OK, what happens after that?’ The same thing that would happen if I just got into the rest of my life today, and I’d be five years ahead of it. So I had this job lined up and I was coming back. They approached me about being a volunteer assistant because at that time, the coaching staff was Don, John Hill and (now Minnesota State head coach) Mike Hastings. And they didn’t have any Gophers on staff, so they wanted to bring a Gopher on staff and they asked me if I wanted to be the volunteer. And I was just kind of lukewarm on it. I was just wondering ‘How much time it was gonna take?’ and ‘Do I want to do that right away? ‘Just come out of hockey and go back into it so quick.’ So kind of over some time, they kind of got me to do it.

“All of a sudden, Mike Hastings leaves and goes to (Nebraska) Omaha (in 2009). And now, I’m the volunteer, so I become the interim (assistant) coach. At first, I don’t think I have any chance at getting this job. I thought it would just kind of be fun for the summer. Well, I started doing it and I loved it. All of a sudden, it went from them kind of talking me into being the volunteer to me begging Don for this job. They interviewed a lot of people and it’d be interesting. I’d be in the office doing the job as the interim and I would see a lot of people, friends of mine and former Gophers, come through and go interview in Don’s office. So I’m going ‘I don’t know how this is going. I don’t know what the deal is.’ And at the end of the process, he ended up feeling like I could do the job. So it went again, from me not being that interested in it, to getting a taste of what it was, and banging his door down to have an opportunity to do it.”

Lucia said that Potulny was mature and self-confident — qualities that would benefit the Gophers as an assistant coach, and could help him to become a head coach somewhere in the future.

“I always felt that he reminded me a little bit of myself,” Lucia said. “He was never the best player, but he became the best player he could and obviously had a huge impact in our program. But just that self-confidence, and when we went through it, I wanted to have an alum on the staff and we had that opening in the summertime. He originally was gonna come and be a volunteer coach that year. He was getting out of hockey and he wanted to get involved in coaching. And so I finally just said ‘You know, let’s give him an opportunity.’ And it was a tremendous decision. He was a really good recruiter. He had to learn a little bit as he went along, but he was always inquisitive. He wanted to learn more and to be better and (was) ready to go. And he wanted to make coaching his profession and I always felt that he would be successful and be a head coach someday.”

The twosome eventually led the Gophers back to the national championship game in 2014 where they lost to a veteran Union squad. It was a different experience for Potulny this time around and he also learned something at the time that he would do differently if this situation were to happen again.

“As a player, you’re so excited, you don’t even feel nervous,” he said. “As a coach, all you feel is nervous. You worry about everything. We win that game against North Dakota (in the Frozen Four semifinals) and you learn things along the way right? We won that game on Thursday and we win it in regulation, but it was such a long game. The game didn’t start until about 8:15 p.m. and we didn’t get back to the hotel and get into our rooms until probably 1:30 a.m., after doing your media (interviews) and eat your meal and all that stuff. Well, Dinkytown (a Minneapolis neighborhood near campus) had erupted into like, riots is the wrong word, but people were partying in the streets and if that ever happened again, I would’ve asked the players if we could have their phones. I wouldn’t say ‘Give me your phones.’ I would say ‘For the rest of the night, can we have your phones? Just so that you can get some sleep.’ Because otherwise, people are texting you, or calling you, and you see it on Twitter. Now, you’re engaged and like ‘Oh my gosh. There’s people partying.’ So if that ever happened again to me in my career, I would ask the players ‘Here’s why. If you guys don’t want to, fine.’ But then, even just making them aware of it.

“It’s interesting. This year, (national champion) UMass didn’t skate on Friday. They had the late game (on Thursday) and they didn’t skate on Friday. They had the day off and we considered not skating (in 2014), but we felt like we had to go to the rink anyway, so we might as well skate. But now, I don’t think I would skate at all and just try to rest and recover.”

Potulny eventually left the Gophers staff in 2017 to become Northern’s bench boss and he was encouraged to do so by Lucia.

“I just said ‘Hey, Grant. When you look around and you want to be a head coach, you’re not gonna go be a head coach on the east coast, what realistic opportunities for you in the west?,'” Lucia said. “And Northern Michigan had great history with their hockey program and it’s a nice community in the U.P. I remember talking to (NMU athletic director) Forrest Karr about Grant and I just said ‘You’re gonna meet him and I don’t know how to describe it, but whatever it is, Grant has it. And Forrest called me after he met with him and he goes ‘You were right. He’s just got that presence about him, and that confidence, and humility all kind of wrapped into one.’ You have to have that with coaching because you have to make difficult decisions, you have to have confidence in your decisions and not look back at what you make.”

Even after Potulny joined the Wildcats, the two hockey experts still talk frequently with both of them enjoying the experience.

“We’re very close,” Potulny said. “He’s been such an important person in my life. He made the decision to bring me in as the first guy (player) not from Minnesota and that was unpopular. He hired me as an assistant coach and there were guys that were way more qualified and had way more experience. When he hired me, I was the youngest coach in college hockey for sure at a big program. There was no trend. Now, you see a lot of younger coaches and there’s a trend that way. But I was the first one that somebody kind of took a chance on and it was Don. Allowing me to grow as a coach underneath him and watch how he handles things, and I still call him if there’s things that are going on in our program, or questions, like you just need to bounce something off somebody because he’s just got such a wealth of experience. I still call him and he calls all the time just to B.S. too. One of the most important people in my life for sure.”

“We’ve always been close, when you go through what we went through together as a coach and a player and then as a coach and a coach,” Lucia said. “He’s got a great family. Over the years, there’s been some times I’ve called him to cheer him up. They’ve had some tough losses and obviously, sometimes, I’d call him and share when he’s had big wins as well. So I’m just really happy for him and proud of him and what he’s been able to do.”

Now the relationship has entered a new form with the Wildcats joining the new CCHA and Lucia becoming the conference’s commissioner. Even though things are different, both men still think it won’t change things too much.

“He’s such a professional,” Potulny said. “And he’s got history with (Bemidji State head coach) Tom Serratore, he’s got history with me, he’s got history with Mike (Hastings). He’s known (Ferris State head coach) Bobby Daniels forever. So it’s not just like he knows me. He’s got a good feel for the coaches and obviously, he’ll get to know everybody even better, but the professionalism that he has, and the way he’s run the league is just so exciting.”

“It’s fun to be a part of this group,” Lucia said. “The coaches are really good to work with and the ADs (athletic directors) are fun to work with and the (university) presidents as well. So I’m really looking forward to the upcoming season and obviously, there will be times I may have made the decision that Grant’s not gonna be happy with, but at the same time, I’ll think he’ll respect it knowing what my background is and how I look at it from a hockey perspective. So as long as you can defend what you do, I think that’s the most important thing. When I was a coach, I used to tell my players you may not agree with everything I do, or say, or what line you’re on, but I’ll give you a reason why, and at that point, we have to be on the same page and move forward.”

Relationships evolve over time, but for Potulny and Lucia, their bond as Gophers will always be strong.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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