Former Griffins goaltender Adam Berkhoel does his best to make sure AHL netminders have the right equipment to do their jobs.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Adam Berkhoel saw it all during his playing career.
An eighth-round pick (240th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft who won a national championship at the University of Denver in 2004, Berkhoel had the good fortune of rising through the goaltending ranks from the ECHL to the NHL, where he appeared in nine games with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005-06.
His playing career lasted six seasons, including one year with the Grand Rapids Griffins (2007-08) when he was the backup to Jimmy Howard. Although the team struggled to a 31-41-2-6 record under first-year head coach Mike Stothers, Berkhoel retains fond memories of the season.
“I had a great time, but we definitely underachieved as a team,” he recalled. “With the amount of talent we had, it was a terrible year in terms of wins and losses, but from a personal standpoint, I loved my year with the Griffins. I really enjoyed the guys I played with; the outcome wasn’t quite what we envisioned.”
After Grand Rapids, Berkhoel played two more seasons, splitting his time between the AHL and ECHL, before he retired at the age of 29 in 2010.
Facing a knee issue before his final season, he underwent meniscus surgery then had a microfracture procedure a month before training camp. He ended up struggling with groin injuries during the 2009-10 campaign.
“My body was telling me that it was time,” he said. “I thought about going to Europe, but my wife and I were thinking about starting a family, and then I was presented with the opportunity to become a pro rep for Vaughn.”
His wife is from Lake Orion on the east side of Michigan, not far from Oxford, where the Vaughn equipment company’s U.S. operations are based. The firm also has a factory in London, Ontario, which manufactures product for Canada and Europe.
Berkhoel is one of two pro services reps for Vaughn. He works with players at all levels of the pro game as well as college goaltenders and top junior prospects in the Ontario Hockey League. He travels mostly in the Midwest, visiting teams as they come through Grand Rapids and Cleveland in the AHL or Detroit in the NHL.
“Vaughn keeps me in touch with hockey,” he said. “It’s a game I played my whole life, and being around the rink and servicing the needs of the players is something I’ve really enjoyed. I believe in the product and Vaughn is a great company to work for.”
Berkhoel has no problem standing behind his gear.
“The product really speaks for itself. It’s a well-known, well-made product,” he said. “We’re a small company and this business is very competitive, so we stress service and quality. A lot of the stuff I do could be handled over the phone, but working face to face with the players is crucial. It’s also important to build relationships with the equipment managers of the various teams.”
Although he works with goalies in the NHL as well as the AHL and ECHL, he tends to spend more time in the minor leagues.
“When a goaltender gets to the NHL, they’re usually pretty dialed into what they want,” he said. “We strive to service the AHL just as much as the NHL, because these guys are the future.”
Statistically, 82 percent of pro goalies wear at least one piece of Vaughn equipment on the ice, although some pieces are more popular than others. While 40 percent of pro goalies are wearing Vaughn leg pads, only 25 percent depend on the company’s masks and 18 percent use Vaughn sticks. “From a brand awareness, you’d like players to wear the most visible pieces, but we value all of our product,” he said.
It’s Berkhoel’s job to make sure his customers are comfortable and confident in their gear. In many ways, the equipment is a natural extension of the player. If a player wants a strap moved or adjusted, it’s up to Berkhoel to help facilitate it.
“If they want to change something, I can sit down with the glove lacer or pad sewer and relay that information,” he said. “If they’re struggling and they want to make changes, we’ll put them in new product. We have demo product that they can try out.”
Berkhoel talks to his customers to make sure they’re making changes for the right reason.
“When a goalie wants to make changes, it’s not always a positive thing,” he said. “If a goalie wants to change something, we always ask why and for what reason. Sometimes guys are overthinking and we try not to complicate things.
“Mike Vaughn (the company’s president and founder) designs product for a reason. If they make changes, it could alter something else in a negative way.”
Berkhoel notes that, with every equipment change, there’s always a danger of creating false expectations.
“When a guy changes gear, it’s not going to automatically make them better,” he said. “When we make modifications according to their specifications, we want to make sure they’re getting the product that fits their game the best.”
Griffins goaltender Jared Coreau, for example, switched this season to stiffer leg pads in an effort to direct away blocked shots. “Goalies in the minors can sometimes be a little more quirky, but a guy like Jared is super easy to work with.”
Coreau wears Vaughn gear from head to toe, including a custom-molded mask.
Every Pro’s Choice mask from Vaughn is handmade by Dom Malerba from the actual mold of the goaltender’s face. The painstaking process of making a goalie mask by hand ensures the ultimate protection possible.
Each mask is made from an energy-dispersing fiber designed for NASA and the U.S. military, combined with a specially designed epoxy resin tested on fighter jets. The new materials allow for the mask to be lighter and stronger than the original. The mask’s custom-made cage features a virtually indestructible front bar made from the highest grade stainless steel available.
“We’re always testing new materials,” Berkhoel said. “If you don’t find them, another company will and that’s when guys switch to new product, and that’s when you’re chasing them rather than keeping them happy in your product.”
As he travels from team to team and league to league, Berkhoel does his best to keep track of the wants and wishes of every player.
“Because the gear is such a passion, you store away a lot of information,” he said. “When you meet with a player, you keep new notes. They may not remember something from the last time, but then you can bring up specifics that can help them next time.”
Berkhoel encourages his customers to visit the Oxford factory every summer. Coreau and Howard have been regular visitors, as has Petr Mrazek, another Vaughn client.
“We try to get as many guys to the factory as possible so they can really see the process,” he said. “People think a piece of equipment is something that you stick in a machine and spit out, but it takes a lot of men and women to manually sew the product. It’s important for the player to see the time and effort that goes into making their equipment.”
Berkhoel also has been a scout for USA Hockey’s National Development Program, but lately he’s trying to spend more time at his home in Rochester Hills. His family now includes two daughters: Adeline, who’s 2-1/2 years old, and eight-month-old Emery.
As it is, sales and service for Vaughn keep him busy. He also does his best to stay up-to-date with the latest goalie teaching philosophy. “The position has evolved since I played,” he said. “Every day something is changing. You have to be up to speed with all the product that’s out there, too. There’s a lot to know, but I really love what I do.”