Don Lucia’s Wrong on This One

Posted by: bciskie

Yes, I have broadcasted 128 Minnesota-Duluth men’s hockey games.

Yes, I am continuing to support the program as a season-ticket holder.

Yes, I despise the Minnesota Gophers with every fiber of my being.

However, I am not an idiot. My respect for Don Lucia’s work as a college hockey coach is as high as it gets. Evidence can be found here and here.

The fact that he is a great coach and a wonderful ambassador for the sport doesn’t change the fact that he is capable of being dead wrong.

Evidence of that can be found here.

“I have never discouraged or encouraged [playing football], but that may change now in light of what happened to Zach (Budish, Gopher hockey recruit who suffered a torn ACL playing football) and what happened to Garrett, too,” said Lucia, who also watched recruit Garrett Smaagaard of Eden Prairie miss his senior year of hockey after tearing his ACL in the 2000 Prep Bowl.

Budish’s injury and Lucia’s stance underscore a growing conflict between the two sports. Overlapping schedules, competition for varsity spots and the growing trend of specialization have the relationship between football and hockey, as Hill-Murray activities director and hockey coach Bill Lechner said, “at an uncertain point.”

Kim Nelson of Edina and Vince Conway of Hill-Murray, who coach football at schools where hockey is king, worry that Budish’s injury might make hockey players — particularly elite-level players — reconsider playing football.

Their concerns have merit. Just weeks after Budish’s injury, Lucia received a verbal commitment from an athlete who played both football and hockey.

“We had a talk,” Lucia said. “I said, ‘It’s time to be a hockey player, not a football player.’ He agreed and he’s not going to play football next year.”

I’m all for coaches advising their recruits. I’m not all for coaches telling their recruits not to play football. High school is a time for enjoyment, a time for hanging out with friends, and a not a time to be specializing in one sport over anything else.

To me, coaches who try to steer their recruits to a single sport are afraid. They’re afraid that the kid will start to like a different sport and want to play that instead.

Such fears didn’t overcome anyone in the Minnesota-Duluth program after Matt Niskanen committed there in 2004. Niskanen was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing hockey for the co-op Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl program, and playing football and baseball for Mountain Iron-Buhl. He continued to play football and baseball in his senior year, and was a top-notch player in all three sports.

Listen, I’m not trying to hold up Niskanen as some sort of evidence to a greater rule. And I’m not trying to make Scott Sandelin out to be automatically smarter or a better coach than Lucia because he didn’t try to keep Niskanen from playing those sports in his senior year.

But if you ask Niskanen, and I have, the fact that he played all three sports made him a better hockey player and a better person. And you can’t argue with the outcome in either realm. Not only is he one of the better young defensemen in the NHL, but he’s also one of the nicest people you could ever meet, and he truly hasn’t forgotten his roots.

And Lucia is not alone. Around the country, there are coaches trying to dissuade their kids from playing other sports as they grow older. For every Don Lucia, there is a college football coach practically begging his recruits to stop playing hockey or basketball or baseball. And there are high school coaches who go so far as to demand their star players not play any other sport.

These things happen. And they need to stop.

We can’t be in such a hurry to get kids through the developmental stages of sports that we don’t allow them to be kids. Yes, there will be kids like Aaron Ness, a Gophers freshman defenseman who accelerated his high-school education so he could graduate and join the Minnesota program as quickly as possible. But Ness didn’t do that because Lucia told him to. He did it because he wanted to.

And that’s how this should be done. Not with pressure, threats, or even subtle requests from college coaches. If a high-school kid wants to play three sports and star in all three, that should be his decision and no one else’s.

Yes, there is risk.

But there’s also risk in letting that same kid drive to school every day. You don’t see coaches banning their players from driving, do you?

Silly? Absolutely. So is a hockey coach worrying about a potential star recruit getting hurt while playing football, or any other sport.

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