Adam Berkhoel has lived a bit of a charmed life.
In 2004, he was the winning goaltender when the underdog University of Denver defeated Maine (and his future teammate Jimmy Howard) by a 1-0 score, capturing the school’s first NCAA hockey championship in 35 years.
Two years later, Berkhoel made the improbable jump from the ECHL to the NHL after Atlanta’s top two goaltenders, Kari Lehtonen and Mike Dunham, both went out with groin injuries.
Last season saw him back in the ECHL, property of the Buffalo Sabres, who didn’t have room on their AHL roster in Rochester. Undaunted, he played well enough to be chosen ECHL Goaltender of the Year.
This past summer, Berkhoel was waiting for his phone to ring with an offer when the call came from the Detroit Red Wings. Knowing he would likely end up in Grand Rapids with the Griffins, he jumped at the opportunity.
Tell us about your summer.
“I got married on June 30 and signed with the Red Wings literally the day before we left on our honeymoon, so it was a great wedding gift. My wife Leigh and I went to Maui. We had awesome weather and had a great vacation.
“Signing with Detroit was a no-brainer because obviously the Red Wings organization is one of the best. It was a dream-come-true, especially with my wife being from Lake Orion, which is about 45 minutes north of Detroit. Her father has had (Wings) season tickets for the past 10 years, so the news made him pretty excited and happy. Things couldn’t have worked out better.”
How did you meet your wife?
“She went to an art and design school in the Denver area and actually lived with a couple of girls who went to the university and that’s how we met.
“It’s tough to find work in her profession, but she just found a job with a furniture company where she can do design and in-home visits. She tried to start her own company last year, but it’s tough because she supports me and what I do, so her profession has been put on hold for awhile.
“After my playing career is over, which I hope is a few years away, we’ll give her first shot at doing what she wants to do. At some point, she would like to go to architecture school. That’s her dream.”
Your favorite vacation spot is Frankfort, Michigan. How often have you been there?
“My in-laws have a cottage on Lake Michigan, right on the sand dunes. It’s a really amazing place. We go up there a couple of times in the summer.”
How did you end up with an English bulldog with a great name like Rugby?
“That was my wife’s idea. I was playing my first year in the pros when we decided to get her a dog for while I was on the road. Being in the Atlanta area (Gwinnett), bulldogs are real popular because of the University of Georgia, so they’re pretty easy to come by.
“We knew that bulldogs have health problems, but when we saw him, we knew right away we wanted him.
“He has allergies, he’s developed some breathing problems and he’ll eventually need hip surgery, but he’s really been a great dog. He’s extremely athletic. He weighs 50 pounds, but he can jump almost head high.
“The name? He has a black spot over his right eye, so my wife thought he looked like a rugby player.”
You’re from Minnesota. How did you end up playing hockey in Denver?
“I played high school hockey, which is pretty big in Minnesota, then played a year of junior hockey with the Twin City Vulcans, but I wasn’t getting any (scholarship) offers. I went to Denver late in the year. It was great decision.”
Two years ago, you went from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL in the same season. What was that journey like?
“The hockey is so different from one league to the other, that it’s tough adapting. It’s tough enough going from the AHL to the NHL, but it’s totally different making the jump from the Coast to the NHL. There are some very good players in the ECHL, but in the NHL, you’re facing all of the best players in the world.”
You made your NHL debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City, then a week later beat Martin Brodeur for your first NHL victory. Were you pinching yourself?
“Just to get called up and play your first NHL game is a big deal, but to do it in Madison Square Garden with all the tradition there, it was an unbelievable feeling. It was pretty incredible getting my first win against Brodeur, even though you’re trying not to think about it at the time.
“When you get called up, all you want to do is give your team a chance to win. You don’t worry about who’s at the other end of the rink because obviously there are a lot of great goalies out there.”
Your dream obviously is to get back to the NHL. When you’re playing well and you’re on a roll, what’s it feel like?
“Everything feels so simple, which makes the game so much easier. You’re always in the right place, you’re controlling rebounds and sometimes the puck looks a little bigger than when you’re struggling.
“When you’re struggling, it’s totally the opposite. You try to do too much, you get yourself out of position and you just make it harder for yourself. The key is to just keep things simple.”