The United States Hockey League became an all-junior league in the fall of 1979. The Bloomington Junior Stars were an original member. Gary Shopek and John Brandt were playing for that team in the winter of 1982-83.
The pair had the exact same birthday – Nov. 23, 1962. Brandt was at Edison and a year ahead of Shopek at Patrick Henry.
Tom Hirsch had been a grade behind Shopek at Henry. He was a top recruit and went directly to the Gophers. The same had occurred with Rick Erdall from Washburn.
Here were Shopek and Brandt, one year later, still playing juniors and hoping for a chance to play Division I hockey.
“We were in our hotel room on a road trip to Iowa and playing music on a boom box,’’ Brandt said. “That Styx song, ‘Come Sail Away,’ came on. There are a couple of lines in there, “We lived happily forever, so the story goes; But somehow we missed out on the pot of gold.’
“Gary listened to that, and looked at me and said, ‘Brandtie, when are we going to get the pot of gold, like Hirsch and Erdall did? Why can’t we have the pot of gold?’
“To Gary, playing for the Gophers … that was his pot of gold.’’
There was a summer league being played at the Roseville Arena called the Junior Olympic League. It was for elite high school players, juniors and collegians on summer break.
John Gilbert, the former Star Tribune hockey writer, was a coach there. “The coaches could protect players from one summer to the next, and John kept bringing back Shopek,’’ Brandt said. “He loved Gary as a player, and he convinced [Gophers coach] Brad Buetow to come out and watch him.’’
Hirsch was going to be with the U.S. Olympic team for the winter of 1983-84. Buetow offered Shopek, Hirsch’s former Henry teammate, a chance to walk on.
“Before that, Gary was going to Hamline,’’ Brandt said. “But he made it to the Gophers and there he was, that first winter, playing on the power play with Erdall.’’
Shopek would play 173 games for the Gophers. He had six goals and 35 assists for 41 points as a junior, and 12 goals and 31 assists for 43 points as a senior.
“Gary’s nickname at Henry was ‘Slips,’ because he was so slippery on the ice, but we called him ‘Rat,’ for the obvious reason,’’ Brandt said. “Gary was the ultimate rink rat.
“I went to St. Mary’s in Winona the same fall that Gary started at the U. I was home one of those winters and we were going to go out one night after Gophers practice. He still was living at home. I went to his house at 7 o’clock. His Mom came to the door and I said, ‘Where’s Gary?’
“She said, “Where do you think? He’s at the rink.’ I went to Folwell Park and he was down there by himself, a Gopher player, shooting pucks.’’
Shopek’s vehicle was almost as notorious as his love for being at the rink. “He drove an old, gold Malibu,’’ Brandt said. “Gary was always the driver when we went from north Minneapolis to Bloomington for Junior Stars practice. He had a small replica of a Stanley Cup dangling from the back window. Everything was hockey with him.''
Shopek died this week at age 51 from esophageal cancer. He was never married. His extended family was the generation of hockey people from the ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond in the Twin Cities.
There was a benefit for Gary a few weeks back and the turnout was huge. The same is probable for Saturday, when his funeral Mass is held at 11 a.m. (with a visitation at 10 a.m.) at St. Bridget’s, in the old Henry neighborhood