Mario Lucia could have chased the money. That’s what NHL prospects usually do instead of playing their senior seasons on college rinks.
Several have gone that route at Notre Dame in recent years: Ian Cole left after his junior season and is now in Pittsburgh while Riley Sheahan played for three and is now with Detroit. Some left even earlier. Kyle Palmieri (Anaheim) was one-and-done. Vince Hinostroza signed with the Blackhawks last winter after two seasons in South Bend.
The Minnesota Wild selected Lucia in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft, so when his junior season ended he had a decision to make. Irish head coach Jeff Jackson knew it and wasted no time, talking to Lucia on the flight home from their final game last season.
“I reached out to Mario right away and told him my thoughts,” Jackson said. “It’s always a challenging thing as a coach because they always feel like you’re making a decision based on being selfish — you want them back for hockey purposes. And frankly, that does exist. You always want your best players to return.”
Jackson touched on development and speeding up the track to the NHL by staying in college rather than ending up in the minors, a la Anders Lee. Now a mainstay with the Islanders, Lee stayed for his junior season when he could’ve signed as a sophomore.
Hinostroza talked with Jackson as well but turned pro anyway.
Lucia decided to return.
“I felt like being a leader was one thing in coming back,” Lucia said. “And playing an important role, playing 20 minutes a game. I don’t know what my role would’ve been down there. That obviously factors into everything. It’s best for my development. Getting my degree, fall back plan. Helping my team win a national championship, hanging a banner here, is what it ultimately came down to.”
Lucia might not have made the same decision a few years ago.
He arrived at Notre Dame after playing a year of junior hockey in British Columbia, somewhat removed from his Minnesota roots. When he first got to South Bend he was still a Minnesota kid with a father coaching the Gophers and a brother playing there. But still, his father Don was a Notre Dame graduate.
“It was just different coming in as a freshman,” Lucia said. “It’s new, something that you never really expected. As a coach’s kid, you follow the footsteps. I followed my brother, grew up watching him play and stuff. After getting accustomed to here and making friends from the team and from school, starting to love campus, I guess is how I got accustomed to this school and this tradition of Notre Dame.”
Jackson takes it a step farther.
Lucia liked Notre Dame plenty as a freshman and sophomore. He just might not have been totally in love with it. Two years later, that’s changed. It was enough to get him back on campus for another year when he didn’t have to be.
“This was Mario’s decision,” Jackson said. “I think Mario’s grown a lot in his three years here and because of that I think that his relationship with those senior classmates, his learning to love Notre Dame.”
Lucia leads the Irish into their season-opening series at Penn State this weekend as the most productive goal scorer by a long shot. He’s sitting on 49 in his career and has increased his season total each years, from 12 to 16 to 21.
Only one of the other three senior forwards have broken the 20-goal barrier for their career, let alone a season: Sam Herr (26). Steven Fogarty and Thomas DiPauli have 17 and 16, respectively.
Jackson plans to diversify Lucia’s portfolio a bit with penalty kill duties tacked on to his usual spot on the top power play unit. That development will be critical down the road as the real money in the NHL comes from a second contract, not the first.
After this season, Lucia will have to prove to Minnesota that another year in college was the best choice for his development. He’ll have a less time to do so.
In terms of business, Lucia bet on himself. He also bet on Jackson and the coaching staff, believing they’re capable of getting him ready for the next level even with less games and NCAA-mandated practice restrictions.
“It’s basically on me,” Lucia said. “Development is on me as much as it is on anyone else. Whether I’m here or there, wherever I would’ve been with the Wild, I think the development is on me. I have to push myself to be the best player I can be no matter what situation I’m in. I’m here, so I’ve got to make the most of it.”