By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Another day, another hockey practice. It’s 10 a.m. in Des Moines, Iowa, and No. 22 is on the ice.

Like so many Minnesota kids, Mario Lucia could lace up his skates in his sleep. His dad, Don Lucia, has been head coach at the University of Minnesota since Mario was 6 years old. His older brother, Tony, was drafted by the San Jose Sharks. Hockey has always been his life.

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“When you’re 5 years old, you don’t think you’re ever gonna make it, but you dream about it,” said Mario.

While dad was on the road recruiting, his mom, Joyce Lucia, was his taxi driver and homework coach.

“Did you ever think, ‘I’m gonna watch him in the NHL?'” asked WCCO reporter Jason DeRusha.

“No, I was just hoping he would make a team. I was always hopeful,” said Joyce Lucia.

Her son notes, “She was always there, always there for us, the most unselfish person.”

In 2011, the Minnesota Wild traded to be able to draft the hometown kid. The second round pick was front page news.

“It was surreal getting your name called. You dream about being called by anyone, but being called by your hometown team was pretty cool,” said Mario Lucia.

But Mario didn’t jump into NHL development camp. Instead he spent four full years at Notre Dame, excelling on the hockey team and in the classroom, graduating in 2016.

“I had the chance to leave, I wanted to finish my school,” he said.

It’s been a long road: From suburban Minnesota, to South Bend, Ind., to a farm-lined highway south into Iowa’s capitol. Des Moines is the home of the minor league Iowa Wild. It is also the home of Mario’s lonely, bachelor pad apartment.

He said he split the $1400 rent with his roommate Zack Mitchell. Zack just got called up to the Minnesota Wild, so Mario’s days in Des Moines – are mostly business.

“We have practice at 10 a.m., wake up at 8, have breakfast, get to the rink at 8:45, have meetings at 9;15, then on the ice at 10,” he said.

It is a change from the college days at Notre Dame, he explained.

“When you’re in school you want to be kid, be a college kid,” he said. “You have fun. In college you’re a kid. You’re a pro now you have to take care of yourself,” he explained.

On game day, Mario has to get to Wells Fargo Arena two hours before puck drop. On this Friday in November, his entire family is here to watch, including his sister and WCCO Anchor Ali Lucia.

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“On the weekend we watch hockey. Whether it’s in Mariucci, or South Bend, or wherever the road game is – now we’re in Des Moines,” Ali said.

Mom, Dad, Ali, Jessie, Tony and kids watch knowing that every shot, every aggressive play off the puck, everything here matters.

The crowds aren’t quite the same as at Notre Dame, or even Wayzata. A couple thousand fill this giant arena in Des Moines.

In the first dozen games, Mario has scored three times, including at a 10:30 a.m. game in front of 13,000 school kids.

“Which was our biggest crowd, it was a lot of fun,” he said.

Mario can hear his mom on the ice. Her trademark whistle is at a frequency such it travels over the crowd, over the board, and Mario knows she’s cheering for him.

“I told him now that it’s a job mom’s not going to come very often. Mom doesn’t pack her lunch and go to work with you. It’s a job now honey!” laughed Joyce.

In an NHL season, there are injuries. There are opportunities for players in the Iowa Wild to get called up to the big team. Over the years, the Wild have selected 12 Minnesota natives in the NHL Entry Draft. They include Jack Sadek (Lakeville) in 2015, Avery Peterson (Grand Rapids) in 2013, John Draeger and Louis Nanne (Edina) in 2012.

Mario was selected the same year as Nick Seeler from Eden Prairie.  The team took Nick Leddy from Eden Prairie in 2009, Kyle Medvec from Apple Valley and Chris Hickey from St. Paul in 2006, A.J. Thelen from Savage in 2004, Michael Erickson from Elk River in 2002 and Jake Riddle from Minneapolis in 2001.

None of those Minnesota players has graduated to making the Minnesota Wild. Zach Parise is a Minnesota native, but the Wild traded for him. Nate Prosser signed as an undrafted free agent, and Mike Reilly, who grew up in Minnesota, was also signed as a free agent.

What’s it going to take for Mario Lucia?

“Gotta be a night in night-out guy, learning to be reliable on the ice, be consistent,” he said.

But this is not Mario’s night, nor is it his team’s night. The Iowa Wild lost 4-1; Mario skated well but didn’t have any chances.

The Lucia family gathers at a spot they know well – the lower level of a hockey arena.

“You had the fan club, should have saved the goal for today,” joked his brother Tony.

Only 245 miles separates one Wild arena from another. It is a short drive, but a very long road.

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“I know it’s not gonna happen overnight, keep doing the little things right and hopefully I’ll get my chance someday,” said Mario.

Jason DeRusha