MINNEAPOLIS — For only the second time in 33 years, Minnesota has begun a search for a new men’s hockey coach.

All-time Gophers wins leader Don Lucia announced Tuesday he’s stepping down from the program he guided for 19 seasons, after missing the NCAA Tournament for a fifth time in the last 10 years.

“Somebody else should have an opportunity, too,” Lucia said at a news conference on campus with athletic director Mark Coyle.

Even if the Gophers had made a deep tournament run, he said, his decision would have been the same. The seeds for his retirement were sewn last summer, and he told reporters he’d been mulling it over for the past few months.

“You’d rather give it up one year too soon than one year too late,” said Lucia, who will complete his contract as a special assistant to Coyle over the next year.

After Doug Woog’s retirement following 14 seasons as coach, Lucia was hired away from Colorado College in 1999 to take over the storied program. The Gophers won consecutive NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003 and reached the national semifinals again in 2005, but the second half of his tenure wasn’t nearly as successful. Attendance declined, too, amid a price hike and the unpopular-with-fans move from the WCHA to the newly formed Big Ten in 2013.

“I know there’s been angst about our program joining the Big Ten, but our fans have to embrace it,” Lucia said, adding: “I’m hopeful that I can look out next year and see more people in the seats.”

Including a 457-247-73 record at Minnesota, Lucia is 736-403-102 over a 31-year career that began at Alaska Anchorage. That’s the eighth-most victories in NCAA history. The Gophers were regular season conference champions eight times under his watch and won four conference tournaments.

After finishing 19-17-2 with a challenging schedule and several quality wins, the Gophers were in position for an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA Tournament field as long as at least one of six conference tournament games went their way on Saturday. The outcomes of all six went against them, leaving them the last team out.

Among the numerous candidates for a replacement, the most speculation will fall on current Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel; St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko, a former assistant under Lucia; and Northern Michigan head coach Grant Potulny, a former player and assistant for Lucia.

“Mark is going to have to make a difficult decision,” Lucia said. “I took a lot of grief because I wasn’t an alum. That’s the reality of it.”

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DAVE CAMPBELL
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