February 25, 2010

A winner, in just so many ways


— By

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, December 17, 2009...Cheverus head hockey coach Dan Lucas.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, December 17, 2009...Cheverus head hockey coach Dan Lucas watches the action during a recent game at the Portland Ice Arena.

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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — It was two years ago this month that Tina Lucas drove her husband home from the hospital in Boston.

Dan Lucas stepped onto the driveway of their new home in Cumberland, looking gaunt and frail. Along the left side of his face, a scar from his recent surgery ran from the ear, along his jaw and to the bottom of his chin. Staples were still attached to the incision.

''He looked like Frankenstein,'' said his son, Wade.

Wade, home from college for Christmas vacation, welcomed his dad, then returned to shoveling snow from the driveway.

Next thing Wade knew, the snowblower fired up. He turned to see his weakened father behind the controls.

''I think for him, it was 'I can do this.' It was such a my-dad thing to do,'' said Wade, now 23.

Said Tina: ''I think it was to let the kids know that everything would be all right.''

Should not a man be resting after surgery, a procedure that removed a fast-spreading cancer?

To know Dan Lucas is to realize the question is moot. Ask Lucas why he refrains from self-pity parties. Or why he insisted on driving his daughter to school while undergoing the exhausting, nauseating chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

It's who Dan Lucas is.

''I knew he felt awful,'' said his daughter, Paige, 16. ''But once he puts something into his head, he's going to do it.

''That's just my dad.''

Portland hockey followers may remember Paige's dad. Dan Lucas skated for the Maine Mariners for two seasons -- from 1978 to 1980 -- helping the Mariners celebrate a Calder Cup championship in 1979.

Lucas retired in 1981, at the age of 23, and left hockey behind.

This season, Lucas skated back on the ice as the new head coach at Cheverus High, a program that won back-to-back state championships in 2005 and '06.

Lucas hadn't been on a hockey bench for 28 years. Still, Cheverus Athletic Director Gary Hoyt never seemed so happy about having hired someone with no coaching experience.

''When I started calling around and looking for future hockey coaches, his name kept coming up,'' Hoyt said. ''Everybody said if you want someone with knowledge and character, Dan Lucas is the person. After meeting him, I can understand why.''

The Stags (4-2) followed a season-opening loss with four straight wins, including a 2-1 upset over powerhouse Scarborough. There is optimism after 12 combined wins over the past three seasons.

''It's a nice change,'' senior forward Matt Cartmell said. ''He seems calm and collected, but he's focused. He drills into our heads that we have to focus on the task at hand.''

Focused. That word surfaces in nearly every description of Lucas, whether it be his players, former teammates, children or the woman he has been married to for nearly 30 years.

''He was quiet, a little on the shy side,'' Tina said of their first meeting 31 years ago. ''But he was very intense. He looks you in the eye, and when he talks to you, he really talks to you. I liked that about him.''


Lucas can focus when he needs to, and that trait likely saved his life.

When he made a routine trip to the dentist in the summer of 2007, an alert hygienist noticed a lump on Lucas' throat.

''She said, 'You should get that checked out,' '' he recalled.

He did and it was not good news. Lucas soon found himself in the office of Dr. Dan Deschler of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

The diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that can spread quickly.

''I was in the waiting room and there was probably five or six people in there that had no voice box. They cut it right out so they could prevent it from getting down to the lungs,'' Lucas said. ''That was a real eye-opener.''

In Dr. Deschler, Lucas found a man capable, confident and focused. He instantly took a liking to him.

''Dan Deschler sat on a stool in front of me and said, 'What you have is a real serious, fast-spreading cancer. You're going to go through hell. You're going to be tested both physically and mentally.' ''

Then Dr. Deschler grabbed Lucas and went face to face with him -- like a coach getting his athlete's attention.

''He said, 'I'm going to tell you right now, I'm going to cure you.' I told him I would do whatever he wanted,'' Lucas said.

At home in Cumberland, the Lucas family faced reality in different ways.

''I probably was more emotional,'' Wade said. ''I wanted to talk about it.''

Paige kept her feelings to herself.

''I would try to pretend that it wasn't happening,'' she said. ''My mom and Wade are both up-front with their feelings. But when I'm sad or afraid, I think I'm more like my dad. I didn't want to talk about it.

''And I didn't want to cry in front of them.''

Tina cried.

''We were blindsided,'' she said. ''Initially I was a mess. I cried a lot. I had to get myself together because I think I was scaring my kids.''

As for Lucas, he said little. His doctor warned that Lucas was in for hell, and Lucas focused on the fight. The chemotherapy and radiation treatments sapped his strength. At 6-foot-1 and once weighing in at 214, he lost 68 pounds.

''I was a stick,'' Lucas said.

He could not eat solid foods and had trouble speaking. He could not manage the stairs and slept on a first-floor couch. So weak, he was reduced to crawling to the bathroom.

''He's the most courageous man I know,'' Tina said. ''And he's strong, so mentally strong. He never complained. Never said 'Why me?' He took it all.''


The emaciated Lucas, at the peak of his treatment, is quite a contrast to the athletic Danny Lucas, who was tall for his age yet still coordinated. He stood out on the hockey rink in his hometown of Powell River in British Columbia -- ''two ferry rides north of Vancouver,'' Lucas said.

At 14, Lucas left home to play junior hockey in Humboldt, Saskatchewan.

''When I got off the airplane, it was 42 below,'' he said. ''My dad, who was from Saskatchewan, said I'd get used to it.''

From Humboldt, Lucas moved on to major juniors, playing for the Victoria Cougars. But Lucas was a rare player. He remained in school, at Oak Bay High.

''Only two of us went to high school,'' Lucas said. ''The rest thought they were all going to sign the big (pro) contract.''

Lucas played well and in his second season in Victoria, recorded 57 goals and 56 assists in 79 games.

During his third year in Victoria, just before Christmas, Lucas was told he was being traded to the Edmonton Junior Whalers. His coach said Lucas would be compensated.

''I was told that I would get $25,000 and a Camaro,'' Lucas said. ''I looked (at the coach) and said, 'That's not going to happen. I'm going to go home (for Christmas) and I'm going to come back and graduate from high school at Oak Bay.'

''The coach went berserk.''

Players as good as Lucas don't just stop playing hockey. But Lucas did, and the next year he remained out of junior hockey and played for the University of British Columbia for the 1976-77 season.

After one college season, a coach of another major junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) Greyhounds, called Lucas.

''He said, 'Why don't you come play with me? We got this great centerman. He's 16 years old.' ''

Lucas did not recognize the player's name.

''I had no idea who Wayne Gretzky was,'' he said.

With Gretzky showing his remarkable skills, the Greyhounds drew large crowds and Gretzky's linemates complemented him. Lucas finished with 50 goals and 67 assists in 61 games.


At age 20, Lucas attracted the scouts and was drafted in the first round of the 1978 draft by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Lucas thought he had a solid preseason training camp with the Flyers, and played in six games with Philadelphia.

But soon he was sent to the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, the Maine Mariners.

''I was devastated,'' he said. ''That was probably one of the low points. They gave me a piece of paper with (directions from) I-95 North. I was to meet the Maine Mariners in Springfield, Mass.

''I was playing in the National Hockey League and all of a sudden I'm in Springfield, in one of the oldest rinks in the American Hockey League.''

Lucas struggled early.

''I was my own worst enemy. I should have had a better attitude about it. But I was so down and hard on myself for not being able to stick up there.''

Lucas finished with 21 goals and 19 assists in 70 games, and added three goals and six assists in 10 playoff games as the Mariners won the Calder Cup.

But the highlight of the season was a team New Year's Eve party, where he met Tina Brown, a Portland native.

''He asked me to dance -- little did I know he doesn't like to dance,'' Tina said.

Lucas played a second full season in Portland, 1979-80. After that season, he and Tina were married in Hawaii.

The couple returned to Portland but didn't stay long. The Flyers were giving up on Lucas. They bought out his contract, and Lucas ended up playing for the Fort Worth Texans in the Central Hockey League.

Following that season, in 1981, the Rochester Americans of the AHL contacted Lucas about playing for them.

''But by then,'' he said, ''hockey for me wasn't what I thought it was going to be.''


Lucas enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, taking business and computer science courses. He interned at a real estate office and enjoyed it.

''I liked the business -- self-motivation and all that,'' he said. ''You just have to go out and earn it.''

Lucas got his degree and then his real estate license, as did Tina. In 1988 they established Lucas Real Estate in Portland. For extra income, as well as medical benefits, Lucas took a regular part-time job with UPS. And Lucas is still with the company, driving a truck on the morning airport route.

The Lucases settled into their first home in Portland, and welcomed the addition of Wade in 1986. Dan Lucas applied his calm and focused personality as a father.

''He's the greatest dad,'' Wade said. ''Very supportive of our individual efforts -- always expected that we would rise to the occasion and perform the best we could do in whatever we did.

''One thing I remember is when he taught me how to drive. It was a stick (shift) and I kept stalling, and he was so patient with me.''

Paige remembers taking walks with her father and the dog. They would play tennis or go skating, with Paige holding onto her dad for support. She would go wherever he went.

''If he was going to get some take-out for dinner, I'd run to go with him,'' Paige said.

Dad never pushed hockey on his kids and they pursued other interests. Wade ran cross country for Cheverus, then found a talent for rowing in college at Holy Cross. Paige is a junior at Cheverus, playing basketball and lacrosse.

In the summer before her freshman year, Paige found out about her father's illness. He hadn't begun treatment when she left on a two-week trip to Japan as part of a basketball/cultural exchange program.

When Paige returned, she was shocked to see her father already losing weight. He appeared tired and his hair was falling out.

''It was like there was less of him there,'' she said.


After the treatment came the surgery and then the celebrated scan that proclaimed Lucas to be cancer-free. More scans followed, including an appointment two weeks ago that still showed no signs of cancer.

Lucas has returned to the routine of working at his office and for UPS, along with his new role.

When Cheverus had an opening for a head hockey coach, Hoyt, the athletic director, did his research. He contacted some of Lucas' former teammates on the Mariners. The testimonials came in.

''Danny is an awesome guy,'' said a former Mariners player, Guy Delparte. ''He's very honest, well spoken and respectful of everybody. He's the type of guy you want to be around and work with.''

Hoyt called Lucas with an offer. Tina was wary.

''I said, 'Are you kidding? The kids are starting to leave the nest and you're going to do this?' But I knew he wanted to do it because he kept mentioning it.

''And he's having a great time with it.''

Lucas brought in Delparte as his top assistant. When Lucas runs a practice, he rarely raises his voice, but skates around, working with players.

''You can tell he definitely knows the game,'' said senior forward Sean Oddy. ''He has us focused on the right things.''

Lucas hasn't shared his personal fight against cancer with his team. It's not a secret but it also doesn't define the man. He didn't need a cancer scare to get him focusing on the right things.

''A lot of people would ask me if I had an epiphany. Do I feel like I'm going to now take advantage of every moment of my life?'' Lucas said. ''I think I've always felt that I've been blessed with two great kids and a good, solid marriage.

''I have a decent life in Maine; my faith and a strong family. I've always been grateful.''

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:


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Additional Photos

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Maine Mariner Dan Lucas in 1980

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Staff photo by Derek Davis: Dan Lucas, Cheverus hockey coach and former Maine Mariner player with his wife Tina and children Wade and Paige at their home in Cumberland. Photographed on Dec. 24, 2009.

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