ST. PAUL, Minn. - From a young age, Mario Lucia had an interest in the Minnesota Wild.
Last week, he found out the Wild had an interest in him, too.
The first Minnesotan taken in this year's NHL draft went, fittingly, to the host team. The Wild traded their third- and fourth-round picks Saturday to the Canucks, using Vancouver's second-round pick, No. 60 overall, to select Lucia. The left wing from Wayzata High School is the son of University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
The family stood and clapped as dozens of Wild fans in attendance at Xcel Energy Center cheered, and Mario Lucia exchanged hugs with his siblings and parents before walking down to the floor to put on the green jersey. His dad had tears in his eyes when he told him congratulations.
"I couldn't have written a better story than this," Mario Lucia said. "Growing up in Minnesota, to be drafted by the hometown team—fun time, not only for my family, but for myself, too."
Family has been a big part of Mario Lucia's development as a hockey player, and having him drafted here ranks as only the second-biggest event for the Lucia clan in the arena. In 2002, Don Lucia guided the Gophers to the NCAA championship with an epic win over Maine.
"This ranks right up there, but I've been through this enough to know it's a long way off, and he's got a long way to go," Don Lucia said. "You've got to prove yourself in juniors and college and maybe after that you'll get your chance. It's great that we had the draft here in town, but it's also great that he was drafted by the hometown team."
When the Wild-Canucks trade was announced, Mario Lucia said he had a feeling of what might be coming next.
"They said they were going to try to get me in," said Mario Lucia, who met with Wild officials in St. Paul last week. "Once that deal went down, I had high hopes, and they fulfilled those hopes."
Lucia will play junior hockey this season. He said he'll consult with the Wild before making a decision about where. He has also committed to play college hockey, but he has yet to pick a school, with Minnesota, Colorado College and Notre Dame the finalists. Don Lucia was the coach at Colorado College before coming to Minnesota, and he played at Notre Dame. Mario's older brother Tony Lucia played for the Gophers for four years and captained the team as a senior.
At six-foot-two and 187 pounds, Mario Lucia has the size to eventually thrive in the NHL. But he knows he has much work to do.
"My biggest attribute is my hockey smarts and my hockey sense," he said. "I'm a good finesse forward, but also I'll do the gritty things. I'm a hard-worker, and I'll do whatever it takes to play in the NHL."
Mario Lucia was the top-ranked Minnesotan eligible for this year's draft.
"This whole process has been so stressful. It's just nice to get it over with," he said. "Now the hard work comes. The marathon is only beginning."
The Wild took another Minnesotan, defenceman Nick Seeler from Eden Prairie High School in the fifth round. But assistant general manager Brent Flahr insisted the local connections were a coincidence.
"We don't draft kids because they're from Minnesota. We draft them because they're good players and they may happen to be from here," Flahr said.
There are different ways to count, by birthplace, site of their current team or the state where they spent their formative years, but there were essentially 14 Minnesotans drafted this year. Edina High School had two: Steven Fogarty in the third round to the New York Rangers, and Max Everson in the seventh round to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lucia is years from being in position to help the Wild, but the weekend additions of Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle in the trade that sent defenceman Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks had new head coach Mike Yeo excited.
"There's a number of guys with some offensive upside," Yeo said. "I got a couple texts from people in other organizations, saying a couple years down the road we're going to be pretty loaded up front."
The 24-year-old Setoguchi, in particular, brings a shooter's mentality. That's an area Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher are focused hard on.
"I'm so encouraged. Certainly, losing Brent Burns is a huge piece of our defence group, and we're going to have to make sure we're going to have guys ready to come in camp. We have to have guys that can come in and step up," Yeo said. "By upgrading the talent up front with a guy like Devin coming in, my expectations haven't changed one way or another. Coming into the season, all I'm expecting is to start building right from the start."