Mario Lucia had never felt so much pain.
Back in late August the freshman winger participated in a standard preseason workout when a puck battle drill resulted in an awkward tumble to the ice. One doctor thought the injury would keep Lucia out a couple weeks. Another confirmed a broken leg and two-month recovery time.
Before his freshman season could get started, Lucia added a stabilizing boot and crutches to his everyday equipment.
“That kinda crushed me,” Lucia said. “I had tears in my eyes and stuff.”
Soon after Lucia plunged into the rehab process while keeping his hand-eye coordination on point. He spent hours and hours at shooting stations below the Compton Family Ice Arena trying to keep sharp the skills that made him one of the nation’s top recruits.
Eventually trainers had Lucia doing band and range of motion work to regain strength in his leg. Head coach Jeff Jackson put an optimistic return date around Thanksgiving.
Lucia returned to practice in early November in hopes of working toward a return for the North Dakota series. Instead he skated onto the ice at Yost Arena on Nov. 15 for his first college game. Rival Michigan awaited.
Notre Dame captured a 3-1 win. The next night Lucia scored a goal as the Irish clinched a sweep.
“You don’t know what to expect until you’ve played in your first game,” Lucia said. “Obviously players are stronger. You’re playing against guys that are four or five years older than you. It’s no juniors anymore when you’re playing against guys your own age ... You’re playing against men.”
Since welcoming Lucia back to the lineup No. 3 Notre Dame (13-4-0) has won seven of eight. It takes a five-game winning streak into a game at Bowling Green on Saturday, its last before the holiday break.
Lucia has eight points on five goals and three assists over that stretch while sharing a line with T.J. Tynan and Mike Voran.
“We’ve been playing really well,” Lucia said. “Obviously, T.J. is one of the best players in the CCHA and Voran brings a lot of tenacity and grit to our line. He’s good in the corners and also good at the net. I think that combination of skill and grit, I think, makes our line dangerous.”
The Irish might be taking a break after this weekend but Lucia will have more opportunities to make progress with his game after securing a spot on the preliminary roster for the U.S. Junior National Team as it prepares for the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Lucia is one of 27 players invited to camp from Dec. 16-18. Another camp will be held in Finland from Dec. 19-23 with the 23-man roster that will compete in the event, scheduled for Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ufa, Russia.
Making the team could set Lucia up for a big second half.
“Some guys come back and it energizes them,” Jackson said. “They have a great second half. Other guys, it hurts them. They come back and they’re a little tired. It varies from guy to guy. I’ve seen guys explode after the World Juniors and take right off. I’ve seen other guys that kinda go in the hole. It varies from person to person.
“The one thing about Mario is he hasn’t played a lot of hockey this year so I’d expect he’ll come back just as hungry or more so once he gets back from Russia.”
During injury rehab no one was so sure Lucia would even land an invitation to camp.
Growing up Lucia often thought about representing Team USA in the event. But with a broken leg and the prospect of being rusty upon return, optimism dipped. Now with the opportunity renewed Lucia hopes to make the most of it.
“You grow up watching some of the best players in the NHL play through that,” Lucia said. “These last few years guys I grew up watching like (Minnesota forward) Nick Bjugstad, you see him go through that. It’s kinda just every kid’s dream to play in that, so obviously it’s an honor. I’m really looking forward to being able to represent my country if I make that team.”
Lucia also has his eyes on another part of the calendar: A Jan. 8 meeting between Notre Dame and No. 5 Minnesota.
Playing at Mariucci Arena will represent a homecoming for Lucia. He’ll play against his father, Don, the longtime head coach of the Golden Gophers and a Notre Dame alumnus. Lucia chose to play his college hockey in South Bend at Don’s urging.
Notre Dame assistant coach Andy Slaggert made Lucia a priority throughout the process as well.
“My dad kind of pushed me away because he didn’t want to hold me back being the coach’s kid and everything,” Lucia said. “He wanted me earn the ice time I earned, I guess you could say.”
Jackson had been through the process of pursuing a Lucia before. He did so when Mario’s older brother, Tony, was making a college decision. Tony played for Minnesota before moving on to the professional ranks.
But that experience helped pave the way for Mario to attend Notre Dame rather than follow in the family footsteps.
“They went through it with Tony, his older brother,” Jackson said. “Playing in Minnesota, it’s tough for a coach to coach his son. Don wanted to try it. I remember talking to him about it. Anybody would want to do that as a father. It was tough though. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
So far the returns have been all positive. Save the injury, Lucia has enjoyed the college experience as a productive part of a winning team. Those circumstances will let him chase a gold medal and a victory against his father in the next month.
“I’m excited,” Lucia said. “I’ve already chirped him a little bit the last couple days just because we moved in front of him in the rankings. I’m looking forward to it a lot. It’ll just be nice to be able to come home and play in the rink that I grew up being around my whole life. It’ll be a good experience. It’ll be weird but I’m really looking forward to it.”