WILLMAR, Minn. — On the bench, Gophers men’s hockey head coach Don Lucia is known for his serious demeanor.
But away from the ice, the coach’s intensity melts away.
“Some people can see a different side of me — not the stiff and stoic guy behind the bench,” Lucia said.
Gophers fans around the state were given the opportunity to get a more candid take of Lucia last weekend as part of the athletics department’s “Gopher Road Trip: Chalk Talk 2014,” which is in its second year.
Gophers head coaches and athletics director Norwood Teague are participating in the trip, which began May 20 and ends June 4, as a way of reaching out to fans from across the state.
The coaches are busing around the state and making stops in cities ranging from Hibbing to Owatonna, and nearly every head coach is scheduled to appear on at least one leg of the trip.
“It’s great to connect, especially in small-town Minnesota,” Lucia said. “These are the fans that maybe they don’t get to every game, but they’re the ones that are watching us on TV.”
The road trip began last year with 16 stops around the state. This year, there are nine scheduled events.
“It’s an opportunity for us to come out and say ‘Thank you’ to everyone who comes to Minneapolis and comes [to] visit us,” said Jessica Fleischmann, the event’s coordinator.
The trip’s first stop was in Willmar where fans won prizes, mingled and ate with the guests of honor and heard from coaches about the state of their programs.
Lucia joked with the crowd that head women’s hockey coach Brad Frost was the person to blame for the men’s team’s runner-up finish.
“I told Brad at the start of the season, ‘I’m tired of being the second-best hockey team on campus, so whatever you do, we’re going to do.’ They finished second, we finished second,” Lucia said.
The trip also introduced fans to Marlene Stollings, who was hired as the head women’s basketball coach in April. Stollings said the community has been warm and welcoming.
“I grew up in a small town,” she said. “I know how these folks embrace and love the U.”
And for Stollings, the road trip offered the chance to get to know her new colleagues.
“To be able to sit on the bus and connect with them and share ideas is actually pretty special,” Stollings said.
Fans echoed that sentiment.
Fleischmann estimated there were 250 people at the Willmar event, many of whom had devoutly followed the Gophers for decades.
Daryl Marcus, a Gophers fan since the 1960s, said the road trip helps fans connect with coaches in a positive way.
“[It] establishes bridges that do a whole lot of good because people know who [the coaches] are and what kind of people they are,” Marcus said. “If you know those things, it’s much easier to support them.”
Though some schools have Division I programs, the University of Minnesota is the only school with all Division I sports in the state. This has garnered a huge fan base for the Gophers and, Teague said, demand for the road trip.
“It’s a great time to get out to greater Minnesota,” he said.