The Long Path Home for Brent Gates Jr.
The Grand Rapids native expected to play at Van Andel Arena tonight.Jan 25, 2020
By Joe Spurrier/SanDiegoGulls.com
Growing up in Western Michigan, Gulls rookie left wing Brent Gates Jr. went to Van Andel Arena to watch his hometown Grand Rapids Griffins. Aside from a casual skate when visiting home, the Grand Rapids native hasn’t been back home to play hockey since he was merely a young teenager.
“It’s pretty surreal, coming back to the rink this morning,” said Gates following a morning practice with the Gulls at Van Andel Arena. “I’ve been here plenty of times to watch the games, but it’s way different coming here, putting the gear on and going on the ice. I’ve never been able to do that before. It brings back a ton of memories, but at the same time it feels like a new experience for me, new chapter, playing pro hockey.”
Watching the Griffins play from the stands, Gates dreamed of life as a professional hockey player. His path back to Grand Rapids was a long one, but it all started in his own backyard, where he learned to play the sport that he can now call a career.
“I remember we actually hired a big landscaping crew,” Gates recalled when discussing where he learned to play hockey. “They brought in some bulldozers and big CAT trucks, and they put in a bunch of dirt to even the hill out. Our neighbors were mad because it just looked horrible. From then on, every year, my dad would build a rink in our backyard and I would play with the neighbor kids.”
He spent hours skating outside and honing his craft, building a passion for the game.
“I’d go out there with [my father] and work on stuff. I’d go out by myself until the late night, until my mom would call me in,” added Gates. “That’s where I learned a lot of stuff and developed that love for the game. It wasn’t something I did it because I had to, it was something I did because I thought it was a ton of fun. That really drove me to become a better player every year.”
Gates used what his father helped create for him to follow in his footsteps as a professional athlete. However, Brent Gates Sr. wasn’t a hockey player, he was a Major League Baseball player. As an infielder, Gates Sr. appeared in 685 games with the Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins from 1993-99. Through his father’s experiences, Gates got an inside look at the life of a professional athlete early on.
“The lessons, the stuff that he’s taught me is invaluable,” said Gates Jr. “Ultimately, it’s got to come from you, if you want to put in the extra work if you have a dream to play professional sports. But a lot of kids don’t necessarily know what it does take and having someone who went through it and played at the highest level to be there and guide me and let me know, ‘this is what you should be doing, this is what it takes,’ is a huge part of where I am today.”
Part of that growth curve was learning directions from his father. Gates was coached by his father at Grand Rapids Christian High to back-to-back state championships - in baseball. A multi-sport athlete, he had options, but hockey was his true passion.
At 17-years-old, Gates Jr. was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the third round (80th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. Coming off two productive seasons with the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Green Bay Gamblers, Gates L chose the collegiate route to develop his game. He joined the same college that his father played baseball at, the University of Minnesota.
Over four seasons and 148 games with the Gophers (2015-19), Gates scored 42-43=85 points with a +14 rating and 61 PIM, playing all the final 94 consecutive games to end his NCAA career. In addition, he was Minnesota's 2018-19 recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award and named to the All-Academic Big Ten team in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“My dad played a big part in the comfortability there,” said Gates Jr. regarding the decision to attend the University of Minnesota to play hockey. “It’s still a 10-hour drive from Michigan, I wasn’t overly familiar with it. Just having that family connection there was huge for me to be able to make that jump and go over to Minnesota, a new state, and play hockey there. We enjoyed it, he enjoyed coming out as much as anyone so, that was a really cool four years for me.”
Each year, Gates has continued to develop his game and improve his production across multiple leagues. With college now in the rear-view mirror, Gates continues his first full professional season that saw him score his first goal of the campaign against the aforementioned Griffins on Dec. 11.
“Guys are older, bigger, faster, and stronger than in college,” Gates explained on the transition to professional hockey. “Every time you jump up a level, it’s a big adjustment, but it’s still the same game, it’s still hockey and it takes a little bit. I also find that guys here are really good. No matter who you’re playing with, you’re playing with good players, they make your job easier. That part has been different, but it’s been awesome, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
At the age of 22, Gates returns to the rink in his hometown with the Gulls as they prepare for back-to-back games against the Griffins. The two-game road trip marks the furthest the Gulls will play throughout the 2019-20 season, nearly 2,000 miles from home.
“I don’t want to say the odds were against me growing up in Grand Rapids, but you just didn’t see a lot of stories of guys playing professional hockey from here,” said Gates. “It was always a dream of mine and it’s just really cool to be back here where it all started.”