MINNEAPOLIS -- It would be easy to look at the lives that Chaz Lucius and his younger brother Cruz live, and think that they are on easy street all the time.
Chaz, now 18, didn’t even begin playing hockey until he was 8 years old -- ancient by the “skate before you can walk” standards so typical of Minnesota. When he was 14, he received and accepted a scholarship offer to play for the Minnesota Gophers, turning heads throughout the state.
In July, a few months after he became a legal adult, Chaz was a first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, and will start his college hockey career on Oct. 2 versus Alaska as one of the most highly-anticipated rookies to wear that slanty-sided M in a long time.
The Lucius family has had tremendous success in the business world, as Chaz’s parents Chuck and Tami started their own venture out of their garage and are now the owners of Gradient Financial Group, which encompasses numerous companies in various aspects of the fiscal industry. While some families save money to put their kids through private school, the Lucius family founded their own, and in 2021 Gentry Academy made a splash in the state hockey tournaments for both boys and girls.
Ruin and recovery
There was understandable shock in August of 2020 when Lucius -- who had never been injured as an athlete, aside from a few broken noses -- learned that less than a year before he hoped to get drafted by a NHL team he would need major knee surgery if he hoped to continue playing hockey.
“Once we finished crying, we really started to talk through what it looked like. We consulted with several doctors and once we had a gameplan it was just what we needed to do,” said Tami Lucius. “That’s how we’ve always been and I feel like that’s how we’ve had success in our businesses too. You just have to deal with things as they come. There will always be challenges, but we mapped out everything and stuck to a gameplan and (Chaz) did all the extras himself.”
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That meant hours of work in a pool long before he could put weight on the repaired knee. That meant more than three hours in a hospital’s hyperbaric chamber, every day for more than a month. Barely six months later, there were more tears from Tami and Cruz when Chaz returned to the rink, playing for the USA Hockey National Team Development program in a game versus the Chicago Steel, who went on to win the USHL title. Typical of the way he dives right into things, Chaz scored twice in his return, and Team USA won the game.
By July, the Winnipeg Jets were convinced enough that Lucius’ health issues were in the past to pick him 18th overall in the first round of the NHL Draft.
“We just saw a really good offensive player who has the potential to be a top two line player in the NHL one day, we feel,” said Mark Hillier, the Jets’ director of amateur scouting. “Really good hockey instincts and hockey sense, great shot, quick release, goal-scoring ability. We think that’s probably the hardest thing to do in the game right now is to score goals, and that’s probably his best asset. So we’re excited about his potential.”
Starting late, committing early
Chuck Lucius was a high school hockey player in Moorhead in the 1960s, then earned a degree from North Dakota State while also serving his country in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. Tami Mushel was a basketball standout at Irondale, then at Minnesota State Mankato before she met Chuck and started a family. So naturally her boys started out dribbling and shooting layups. When Chaz was 8, with all of his friends playing hockey, he and Cruz decided they wanted to trade the hardwood for the hard water.
“So many guys start so young, but for my brother and I it was just getting down the basics right away, learning to skate and do all that. Then trying to play at the highest level possible,” Chaz said. “For me it was just fun, and it’s always been fun.”
Tami, who had coached the boys in soccer and basketball, made the switch to “hockey mom” seemingly overnight.
“Once they said they wanted to play hockey I put hockey skates on and I actually taught them how to stop,” she recalled. “They were so much older than the other kids and I didn’t want them to hurt themselves or someone else trying to make their way around the rink.”
Flash forward six years to the late summer of 2017. The Lucius brothers were playing in the Gentry system and were described by some as hockey phenoms. Before the implementation of the current NCAA recruiting rules, it was a crazy scene, with colleges getting commitments from kids who couldn’t drive and didn’t shave. Scott Bell, then a Gophers assistant coach under Don Lucia, watched the Lucius boys play and they came to the U of M on an unofficial visit. Offered scholarships, Chaz (14) and Cruz (13) committed on the spot.
While some applauded the Gophers for landing these potential prizes, there was a definite uproar in other circles, and eventually the rules were changed so colleges cannot contact players until Jan. 1 of their sophomore year of high school.
Lucia admits he was reluctant to offer scholarships to players so young, but everybody was doing it at the time. While he applauds the recruiting rules changes that have been implemented, the boys’ success since then -- Cruz is playing for USA Hockey in Michigan and may make his Gophers debut next season -- makes the early commitment look like a stroke of genius.
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“I think there was some backlash about recruiting kids so young, but as it turned out, Chaz is a first-round draft choice from a quality family,” Lucia said. “They were driven and you take solace and confidence that they’re going to want to be elite players and have special qualities. That’s turned out to be true.”
For the Lucius family, their success in business has often made them the focus of unwanted attention. The boys’ success on the rink and their early college choice was just the latest chapter of those challenges.
“They never said it to our face, but obviously there was a lot said behind the scenes. Social media can be a very hurtful thing, so that was hard,” Tami admitted. “That’s alright. They’re strong and they’ve just moved forward from it. Success was the best thing for the boys, to help to stop all the negativity. Chaz is with the Gophers and was a great pick, and Cruz will be there next year, so they’re both very excited.”
Looking back, Chaz has nothing but great memories of the unofficial visit, the scholarship offer and the chance to live out his childhood dream of playing for the Gophers, even if he understands the criticism.
“I understand that and I get it,” he said. “Fourteen is a really young age, but at the same time my goal was always to prove those people wrong and get here and try to be the best player I can for my team.”
Like most folks on the Minnesota hockey scene, Gophers captain Sammy Walker had heard lots about the Lucius brothers before he met them. Now sharing a locker room with Chaz, he understands the hype.
“They committed him so young, and you get to the point where you wonder, ‘Is this guy even real? Is he ever coming?’” Walker said. “But seeing him and being on the ice with him, he’s a great player and I’m excited to see what he can do for us.”
Chaz has good size and a deadly shot, using his frame to create space and his shooting ability to fool goalies. On a team that needs to replace one-third of its goal scoring that was lost in the off-season, there’s little time for him to ease into college hockey. The Gophers’ coaches have made it clear that they are counting on offensive contributions from Lucius and his freshman class right from the start of the season.
Just 13 months after a devastating injury, four years after making his college choice public, and a decade removed from those first tentative strides on ice with his mom showing him how to stop on blades, Chaz Lucius is on campus, in class, on the rink, and living his dream for real, finally.
“I’ve been playing the game that I love, so I feel like in general time really goes by when you’re doing something you love and appreciate,” Chaz said. “Yeah, I committed at a young age. Yeah, it was a long time coming, but now that I’m finally here I’m excited for the opportunity and excited to get going.”
Coming next week in part three of Gophers hockey’s fantastic four -- the captain.