By Ross Forman – Gino Cavallini remembers many magical moments Josh Lopina brought to the Chicago Mission during his 6- or 7-year run with the AAA program, dating back to his squirt major season, and a U16 National Championship.
But the thing about Lopina that really stood out to Cavallini was off-ice: “He had a smile on his face when he came to the rink, always,” said Cavallini, the Mission hockey director who played 593 regular-season games in the NHL.
Lopina was, and still is, a rink rat, the best possible player.
“You never had to coach effort out of him; that came automatic,” Cavallini said.
And the Lopina smile is certainly still ear-to-ear, particularly this season.
Photos Courtesy of Massachusetts Athletics
Lopina, 20, a forward from Minooka and product of Providence Catholic High School, skated this abbreviated season for the University of Massachusetts Minutemen. The NCAA National Champion Minutemen, that is.
UMass cruised to a 5-0 win over St. Cloud State to capture the 2021 Division I Men’s Hockey NCAA Championship, the first in program history. The Minutemen finish the season with a 20-5-4 record, the fewest losses for an NCAA Champion since Maine’s 40-1-2 season in 1992-93.
The National Championship was finally hitting Lopina about a week after the title game shutout, and it is “an awesome feeling,” he said in an exclusive interview via zoom with AHAI – with the famous four-starred City of Chicago flag hanging on the wall behind him during this interview.
The National Championship, he said, “is something I’ll have with my teammates for the rest of our lives. It kind of makes me speechless, is one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
“We just had a great group of guys, great teammates. That final game, we played our full game, for 60 minutes – and that’s what happens when we play our game. We are champions because of that.”
Lopina played in all 28 games for UMass this season, collecting 9 goals and 14 assists, including 4 powerplay tallies. He had a 2-goal game at Boston College last November and had two 2-assist games this season.
“Thought I played a decent all-around game, just doing what I (could) to help the team win,” the National Championship, Lopina said.
Lopina’s road to NCAA glory started with the Joliet Jaguars and the Sabres organization locally. His Learn To Skate sessions, when he was 4 or 5, were at the Inwood Ice Arena. He eventually shifted to the Mission where he shined, leading to a two-year run with the Lincoln Stars in the USHL, where Lopina had 62 points and 24 goals in 106 games.
“Growing up in Illinois, hockey always was super competitive. I think Illinois is a hockey state and am proud to be able to bring the (NCAA) title home to Illinois,” he said.
“I remember the first-time skating at Inwood, in a Learn To Skate program, with no stick or puck,” said Lopina, who saw a hockey practice after his on-ice session and told his mom that he wanted to try hockey.
His earliest hockey goals were for the Jaguars and the Sabres, which he tagged as “great programs (that both) helped me grow as a player. I can’t say enough good things about both (organizations),” he said.
Then it was off to the Mission, back when the Mission was still wearing red and black uniforms, not their current neon green, he noted.
“I definitely knew it was going to be a step up, another step in my career – and was ready for it,” Lopina said of moving to the Mission.
“The coaches I had at the Mission were top-notch throughout, such as Gino Cavallini and Anders Sorensen. They are great coaches who help you grow as a person and a player, prepare you for the next level.”
Lopina tagged Cavallini as a “mentor.”
“He’s been through it all and knows what you need to do to succeed, and he pushes you. I have nothing but (gratitude) for him and all of my Illinois coaches,” Lopina said.
Said Cavallini: “I remember him as one of the smartest two-way players on the ice, always. From day one, he could play 200-feet of hockey the right way. From day one, he understood the game, positioning, where to be, playing hard all the time – his hockey IQ was always above normal.”
Lopina’s Mission legacy is cemented in a U16 National Championship and his teammates that season are “brothers for life,” Lopina said. Such that, many sent well-wishes via text to Lopina before the NCAA National Championship Game. They also sent post-game congratulatory texts to Lopina.
“Winning the National Championship as a U16 … that probably the biggest moment in my Mission career,” Lopina said.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Mission
Anders Sorensen coached Lopina’s U16 team: “He was tremendous for us that year, mostly because he was so intelligent on offense and defense. We knew that if we were up a goal or down a goal, he could play in any situation. He had a real good year for us that season.”
Cavallini added, “He didn’t have the physical attributes (as a U16 player) that he has now. He was a little guy, but smart as heck. He always played bigger than he was.
“His physical stature now is what you look for in a prototypical NHL player.
“I see a player today who they will covet at the pro level because he plays 200-feet of hockey and is the kind of player who can play up and down your lineup – from the top line to the fourth line. However (a team or coach) wants him to play, he can play that type of game.”
Lopina said his U16 run was also when he learned the importance of performance in practice – and how that relates into games. “That’s the year when I learned that hockey was going to become a business soon, and how to be a professional. I think I’ve carried that with me from the Mission,” he said.
Photos Courtesy of Massachusetts Athletics
Just as important, Lopina added when asked for advice for aspiring Illinois skaters: “Follow your dreams and just have fun. Live in the moment, work hard, do well in school, and you’ll be surprised where you can end up.”
Sorensen, like Cavallini, was quick to spotlight Lopina as “a very intelligent player.”
“His reads and his anticipations, even without the puck,” are a strength, Sorensen said. “He’s very good at anticipating the next play that an opponent is going to make. Be it covering an opponent, lifting an opponent’s sticks, whatever. With the puck, he’s really good seeing through layers. He could see plays developing. He was always good at putting a puck, a pass, in an area where a teammate was going to be.
“He reads the game really well.”
Overtime With … Josh Lopina
Sorensen on Lopina’s play during the semifinals and finals of the national championship tournament as a U16: “I remember him being a key player late in both of those games.”
Sorensen on Lopina at UMass, winning an NCAA National Championship: “It was great to watch, looked like he played a big role for them. He was impressive.”
Sorensen on Lopina: “He is a great character kid.”
Lopina on Providence Catholic: He recalls the school’s strong academics and its push from a personal standpoint. “There are nothing but great people there who push you to become a better human.”
It’s a Fact: He often writes family member’s initials, and a cross, on his stick.
Memories from his U15 Mission season: In a game tied, 1-1, he sent a pass with about :05 remaining to play in regulation-time, leading to the game-winning goal with less than :01 remaining for the win. “That probably was the most memorable goal,” he said.