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Junior Gates (sort of) follows father's lead to Gophers stardom

University of Minnesota forward Brent Gates battles Ludvig Hoff (27) to get to the puck and try to get a shot on North Dakota goalie Adam Scheel (31) on Oct. 27, 2018, in Las Vegas. Jim Rosvold / Special to Forum News Service

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brent Gates was a baseball man when he arrived in Minneapolis from western Michigan in 1988. He proved it as a shortstop, playing for coach John Anderson’s Minnesota Gophers at Siebert Field, becoming team MVP in 1990 and Big Ten MVP a year later.

But when you come to Minnesota, this crazy game with ice and sticks and a puck seems to get into your blood, even when you’re a die-hard baseball man. So when Brent and Tiffany Gates had a son in 1997, and Brent retired from a seven-season career in Major League Baseball two years later, he could often be found teaching sports fundamentals to his oldest boy, also named Brent.

But instead of visiting a diamond near their Grand Rapids, Mich., home, they’d head to the frozen surface of the lake where they lived.

“He was a baseball player through and through, but he fell in love with hockey and got me into it right away, skating on the lake, starting when I was 2,” said Brent Gates, Jr., now a senior on the top line for the Gophers hockey team. “He’d put me in snowmobile gear and he’d let me fall down and pick me up all day.

"It was kind of his passion that got me into it, and from an early age I kind of realized that I had something in hockey where I could maybe follow through with this.”

“Junior Gates” as he’s widely known among the Gophers skaters, was a baseball player of some renown as well. Brent Jr. played infield and catcher for a Grand Rapids Christian High School team that Brent Sr. coached to Michigan state titles in 2012 and 2013, when Brent Jr. was a sophomore and junior.

But the hockey rink was the venue where Junior showed the most promise. He’d committed to play at Notre Dame in eighth grade, but reconsidered his future as a high school senior, playing juniors during his second season with Green Bay in the United States Hockey League.

Good childhood memories of Minneapolis, including the two seasons Brent Sr. spent with the Minnesota Twins, helped influence Brent Jr’s change of directions.

“I remember going to a couple Gopher baseball games with him when I was about 10. Through him, I stayed in touch with the Gophers,” Brent Jr. said. “But for all my buddies in school it was Michigan or Michigan State and that’s who I grew up around. For sure he always told me about Gopher hockey and how big it was, so I always found it pretty prestigious.”

Shooter becoming distributor

While teammates see him as a natural shooter, Brent Jr. is taking on the role of set-up man for linemates Tyler Sheehy and Rem Pitlick so far, recording three-assist games in a 4-3 loss to St. Lawrence two weeks ago, and in last weekend’s 7-2 win over Michigan State.

Early in the Friday meeting with the Spartans, with a rookie goalie in the opponents' net, Gates provided an unfriendly welcome to Minneapolis early in the game. Crossing the blue line near the Spartans bench, Gates spotted Pitlick streaking for the net, and fired a pass to a spot to the left of the crease. Pitlick arrived just in time to chip it behind the Michigan State goalie, capturing momentum and a lead the Gophers wouldn’t relinquish.

“We’ve been stressing communication, so I was yelling for it a little bit and he has good awareness to throw it over there as well,” Pitlick said later. “We know each other as players and it’s something we’re taught, to go to the net, so it worked out well. Great pass by him.”

On a team still getting used to a new coach and his new systems, the staff is leaning on seniors like Gates and Sheehy, the team’s co-captains, to lead in the locker room and on the ice.

“He’s got tremendous confidence, and he wants the puck. He’s going to shoot it when he gets it,” coach Bob Motzko said of Gates, who was a third round NHL draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2015. “He had three assists one night, and I think he had three last week, so that’s the train. A little confidence-building right now with that group.”

Wearing dad's number

Perhaps the biggest change Gates made upon arrival in Minneapolis was a switch of numbers, motivated by his family’s legacy at the U of M. Brent Jr. had worn 97, 61, 8 and 6 at various stops in his hockey career. Brent Sr. wore 13 and 8 with the Oakland Athletics, 9 with the Seattle Mariners and 5 with the Twins.

But as a Gopher, the elder Gates wore 10. That’s the number Brent Jr. has worn in his four seasons on the ice.

“He’s a big role model for me and has helped me so much in my career,” Brent Jr. said of his father. “Once I realized I was coming here and following in his footsteps I thought it would be pretty cool to put on the same number as him.”

After all those hours spent learning the game on a frozen lake in Michigan, it seems to be a fitting tribute from a son to a father.

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