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Denise Maloof | | April 10, 2014

Minnesota's Lucia

  Minnesota head coach Don Lucia has been running since his days in Alaska.

PHILADELPHIA -- If an ice hockey season is a marathon, then Minnesota head coach Don Lucia exercises the perfect metaphor.

A daily runner, Lucia finds time for his mileage year-round. He's doubtless discovered an urban route during this week's 2014 NCAA Men's Division I Frozen Four in Philadelphia, the more back-to-nature the terrain, the better.

"It saves my legs and hips and knees," Lucia said of his preference for dirt and grass trails.

Philadelphia parks and the Schuylkill River Trail, which snakes the metro area, would seem tailored, but Lucia prefers his top-ranked Golden Gophers run the table against old Midwest rival and fifth-ranked North Dakota in Thursday's second national semifinal (7:30 p.m.) at the Wells Fargo Center.

Pre-game concerns will be foot-pounded into submission by the drop of the puck.

"It's something I've enjoyed doing just from the standpoint of physical fitness, and the mental health," Lucia said of running. "I think it's a good stress reliever to go out and run."

Not that he's had tons of stress, seemingly.

In his 15th season at Minnesota, Lucia is the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year. His Gophers are making their third Frozen Four appearance since winning back-to-back titles in 2002-03; their West Regional triumph against St. Cloud State was Lucia's 650th career victory; he is 371-190-65 at Minnesota.

A 1981 Notre Dame graduate whose pre-Minnesota head-coaching stints included time at Alaska-Fairbanks (1987-93) and Colorado College (1993-99), Lucia is seeing Philadelphia for the first time -- physically.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "Actually I was drafted by the Flyers back in 1978, but like any good man you have to know your limitations, so I got into coaching instead."

And, running. He began his solitary sport during his mid-80s time in Alaska, first as an assistant coach then as the boss, running cross-country skiing trails before competing in, and finishing, an Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks.

The move to Colorado College fed his daily cardio with a landscape dotted by more trails and outdoor recreation options. Not much changed when he took over Minnesota's program. Only scenery and new trails to explore, even if confined necessarily on a daily basis, to his Twin Cities campus.

"It's something that I've always done for mental health as much as anything else," Lucia said. "I like to jog mid-day. It kind of freshens me up for practice and keeps me in decent shape, too. I always thought that was important, too. If I'm going to coach and expect the players to be in shape, I want to be in shape, too, and serve as a role model for that."

His daily ritual is five miles alone, with few distractions.

"I like to run by myself," Lucia said. "I really don't care to run with anyone else. Because I want to run at my pace and go where I want to go, where I want to run. And it's my time where I can decompress. It's my time where I can be deep in thought. I never run with headphones. I don't listen to music. I just like to take it all in."

He isn't alone in his devotion, citing former head football coach Glen Mason and now-retired athletic director Joel Maturi as fellow daily runners at Minnesota. Only the depths of an upper-Midwest winter slow him. He throttles back in January and February, running indoors on treadmills; not his favorite because of the boredom factor, he admits.

Lucia also eschews serious distance except in the rare case of marathon-itis. He caught that bug again last year, running the Twin Cities Marathon in October. It was a dual quest; Lucia completed a personal rebound from illness several years before, plus he ran on behalf of Defending the Blue Line, an organization dedicated to assisting children of military families in their quests to play ice hockey.

And yes, it hurt.

"It wasn't easy, but I did it," he said. "I was pretty sore. It was about two or three miles too long."

During a Wednesday press conference, seated alongside his captains, senior forward Nate Condon and junior forward Kyle Rau, Lucia joked that his latest marathon was his mid-life crisis -- cheaper than a sports car. It likely also was his last race.

"I think I went right from the finish to our training room because I wanted to make sure our trainer was there and could work on me getting an ice tub," Lucia said. "Some guys watched me limp in. They didn't even know how long a marathon was."

Rau and Condon only smiled and rolled their eyes, confirming they won't emulate their coach.

"They usually aren't't around when I run," Lucia said of all his Gophers, later. "If I'm wearing tights or something they might give me grief behind my back."

But they won't challenge him to a foot race.

"It was a great experience," Lucia said of his autumn marathon. "I'm glad I did it, but I think I'll stick to running about five miles a day. That's good enough."

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