Monday, April 16, 2007

Berkhoel Continues To Learn From The Past

Pioneer Playoff Hero Overcomes Incredible Adversity

From: Dayton Daily News

by Tom Archdeacon

DAYTON, Ohio - The conversation was about his early hockey days and that prompted an innocuous question.

"So where does your talent come from? Who in the family passed on the athletic gene?"

Adam Berkhoel — the goalkeeper who played in the NHL last season, the guy who has led the Dayton Bombers to Sunday's playoff opener against Trenton, the team's first postseason appointment in five years, the guy just named the best goalie in the ECHL — sat in silence for a few seconds and then decided to raise his stick and let this shot in:

"We could go into a whole other story here if we wanted to," he said quietly. "I was adopted when I was an infant. And the truth is my birth mother was murdered."

There was more silence, then the qualifier: "I don't know everything about it. Some of it I'm still learning."

While that's part of his story, it's certainly not the whole story, and what the 25-year-old wanted understood was that Jim and Tina Berkhoel — who adopted and nurtured him and his older brother, Eric — are in every sense of the word, his true mom and dad:

"They raised us all our lives. They're the ones who turned us into who we are."

So who is Berkhoel?

He's a guy who handles whatever comes his way:

• At age 16, he learned from his parents what had happened to his birth mom, whom he'd always known had passed away, but not the details.

• Three years ago — in his first pro season — he endured a pair of medical problems, either of which could have killed him.

• This year with Dayton, he's routinely handled those 100-mph pucks coming in at him, registering five shutouts in 43 games and a save percentage of .910.

"He's the guy who's provided this team with a solid foundation," said Derek Clancey, the Bombers' associate head coach. "You have to have a real mental toughness to be a goalkeeper of his calibre. Right from the start this year, we knew we had something special in Adam Berkhoel."

'Secure as a family'

Berkhoel never before has mentioned his adoptive past in print and after he did for this story, he called back home to his mom in Woodbury — a St. Paul, Minn., suburb — and let her know.

Tina reassured him that was fine. "We're secure in us as a family," she said. "And we've always wanted the boys to know their past when they were ready for it."

Although Adam said he's never talked to his birth father, he recently met his biological maternal grandparents:

"I know our birth mom was from a small town in Minnesota and played college basketball ... I heard that some company came in and worked on a grain elevator in town and when the job was done, I don't know if they were partying or what, but they found her (body) the next day.

"I don't want to upset anyone, but one day when everybody's ready, I'll find out everything I can."

He said questions arise when you least expect them — like when he's had to fill out medical forms requesting his family history.

That was the case in 2004, he said, when he was called up to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League: "I developed a staph infection in my hip socket. It probably started with a hematoma from a shot (on goal) and I got really sick."

Taken straight to surgery, he ended up losing 20 pounds and was out of hockey 2½ months.

"When they put a PICC line in my chest, they nicked my heart and that gave me an irregular heart beat, too," he said. "It was tough going for a while."

And it got tougher.

When he returned — with the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators in the ECHL — he lasted a week until the skate blade of a tumbling teammate severely sliced the left side of his neck, near his jugular.

"It was pretty scary," Berkhoel said. "There was blood all over. It took 25 stitches, but I wore a plastic neck brace and played again."

Tina wasn't surprised: "You know that old saying about 'when the going gets tough?' That's Adam. The harder things are, the more he rises to the moment."

Early hockey passion

That's a lesson Mom had to instill after a setback in his very first hockey venture.

"He was about 7," Tina laughed. "A neighbor got him some hockey equipment and Adam was so proud until he went out for the team in Woodbury ... and got cut.

"He came home and said, 'Mom, I'm a loser.' I said, 'You are not!' We called the Stillwater (Minn.) team, they took him and it's just gone from there."

Not that she didn't have some initial doubts:

"He wanted to play goalie, but I figured he'd be sick of it after a year. I said, 'We're not buying pads yet. You'll have to use some from the association.' He ended up with these old brown pads filled with horse hair that kept leaking onto the ice. I figured that'd do it, but he loved it."

She and Jim began organizing fundraisers to outfit all the association's goalies and soon hockey was a family staple.

She described how the boys would put on roller blades outside and once Adam set up in front of the homemade wooden hockey goal her husband had built, Eric would "shoot on him for hours."

As a teenager, Adam led the Twin City Vulcans of the USHL to the Junior A national title. The Chicago Blackhawks made him their eighth-round pick in the 2000 NHL draft, but he opted for the University of Denver, where he won the NCAA title in 2004.

Plying the minor-league ranks since college, he was called up to the Atlanta Thrashers last season, debuted in Madison Square Garden and played nine games.

When the Thrashers didn't re-sign him this season, he was picked up by the Buffalo Sabres who — with no ECHL farm team of their own — shipped him to Dayton.

"Last year was a dream come true," Berkhoel said. "Once you get a taste of (the NHL), you want to get back so bad. Now it's just a matter of showing people I still have what it takes."

Reaches out to kids

You'll get a ringing endorsement of that from plenty of folks here, especially Leigh Roland. The two will marry June 30 back in Woodbury, where Adam's bought a house near his parents.

Family and home are big with him. He and his brother talk by phone almost daily.

His parents buy Bombers' games off the Internet so they can watch, and every chance he gets, Adam reaches out to kids back in Woodbury.

Tina told how he'd befriended a local youngster whose father had recently died: "Adam would call him to see how he's doing, leave him tickets for his games and he even put on a clinic for the boy and his hockey team ... That's just a good heart."

Some of it may have to do with his distant past — the part of which he's still learning — but it certainly is deeply rooted in the way his parents raised him.

Like Clancey said: "Right from the start, we knew we had something special in Adam Berkhoel."

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