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Gophers Hockey: Michigan native Brent Gates Jr. returns home this weekend

For the first time in its nearly century long history, Minnesota has a Michigan native on its roster.

Brent Gates Jr (10) on the ice at Minnesota.
Brent Gates Jr (10) on the ice at Minnesota.
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Over the decades the road of hockey talent between Minnesota and Michigan has flowed in one direction.

With the two universities playing games against one another since 1923 - a series that continues this weekend in Ann Arbor between two teams picked to finish atop the conference - there is plenty of history between the two. Minnesotans have gone to play for the Wolverines going back to Eveleth, MN native and Michigan legend Wally Grant making the journey to Ann Arbor in 1945 to hopefully get a spot on the team. He did. Three All-American awards and a national championship later it was the one of the best decisions made.

Michiganders, on the other hand, have not reciprocated. There are connections among Minnesota's program, which historically has recruited mostly in-state thanks to another Eveleth native, John Mariucci.

Most come from the past twenty years with the rise of United States Development Program in Ann Arbor. Three players on this year's team - defensemen Ryan Collins and Jack Glover, and forward Hudson Fasching - on this year's Minnesota team spent two seasons in Ann Arbor with the United States National Development Program.

The two teams have come into more contact since joining the Big Ten in 2013; playing series Minnesota head coach Don Lucia calls a measuring stick for his team.

However, when Brent Gates Jr. came on the Minnesota campus this year to play hockey he was more than the youngest player on the team. It was the first time a native of the Great Lakes State suited up for the Gophers. Gates was aware of the historical footnote. According to him, that fact didn't have any bearing on joining the team.

Still, this is his first trip home to play in front of his buddies along with family and friends. Returning to the state this weekend will be meaningful, he said.

"It means a lot, just in general being from Michigan. Michigan and Minnesota are both big hockey states. They both produce a lot of players," Gates said. The University of Minnesota has a great track record with winning so being able to come to a prestigious school like this and play hockey and represent friends and family back in Michigan, it's pretty cool."

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, two hours west of Ann Arbor, the 18 year-old Gates has played in the Wolverines home Yost Arena before over his 3 years with the Compuware program (a commitment that meant driving from one side of the state to the other, crisscrossing the mitten). Being in front of a full house, with the history, the unique signs and vocal fans will be new.

So are most things in his first go around college hockey, with the ups and downs that come with it.

Gates, who has a goal and an assist in 13 games this season, has been working to return from a badly broken leg that cost him the second half of his season last year with the Green Bay Gamblers (USHL).

Despite the injury, he was the first Minnesota freshman chosen in this past summer's NHL Draft when the Anaheim Ducks selected him in the third round (80th overall). For the most part Gates is completely healthy and stronger after spending all summer rehabbing. Playing on lines with upperclassmen has been beneficial with the process.

"Being able to play with some older guys definitely has helped on and off the ice. They're all good players and very easy to play with, so they've also been helpful with tips and stuff, with mistakes," he said. "Obviously mistakes are going to happen as you're adjusting and they've been graceful at that. They haven't gotten on me or anything. They stick with it."

Gates' connections to both states include his father. The elder Gates played baseball at Minnesota for both the Gophers, where he was inducted into the school's hall of fame this year, and the Minnesota Twins in the 1990s.

"Coming (to Minnesota) after him is really cool. He obviously was really successful here so there's some standards to live up to," he said.

Being the son of a former ball player gives him a second group of people that care about him as much of the baseball coaching staff remains the same or made up of people who played with the elder Gates.

Familiarity helps on all fronts. The one way route between Minnesota and Michigan is changing. Next year Gates will be joined on the Gophers by another Michigan native in Michael Szmatula.

There is one thing being from Michigan means Gates missed out upon because of the difference in development between the states.

"I didn't play high school because the high school competition in Michigan isn't where it needs to be because a lot of guys go play travel hockey or AAA. Whereas here high school hockey's huge, which I think is really cool because you get to play in front of your classmates," he said. "That's something I didn't get to do. So I think the high school part of it here is really cool and it seems like everyone is a hockey fan."

Minnesota and Michigan play two games this weekend at Yost Ice Arena. Friday's game airs on BTN at 7:00 p.m ET/6:00 p.m. CT. Saturday's game starts at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT and airs on ESPNEWS.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --