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Berkhoel handling the ups and downs of pro hockey

DULUTH - How many goalies go from playing in the NHL to not even being a No. 1 for an ECHL team in the same season?

Adam Berkhoel has.

How many goalies would handle such a situation with class and refuse to wallow in self-pity?

Adam Berkhoel does.

"You can't control those type of things," he said. "If you sit back and you're angry and bitter about it, it's just going to affect your game. You just have to be positive about it and not be too good to be where you're at.

"You have to keep the mindset that maybe I don't deserve to be here, but I'm here. You have to deal with what gets dealt to you and go from there."

It's been another weird season in the pros for the Minnesota native.

Berkhoel, when he was healthy, played mostly for the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators last season. But two freak injuries limited his action to 25 games. First a rare septic infection in his hip while he was on call-up to Chicago of the American Hockey League sidelined Berkhoel for more than two months in the middle of his rookie season. He made an amazing recovery, though, and returned at the end of January - well before even the most optimistic projections.

Then at the beginning of March, Berkhoel's neck was cut by a skate during practice. It took 21 stitches to close the gash and despite the scar still visible even a year later, Berkhoel missed just four games because of the injury.

A strange rookie season to be sure. But his sophomore campaign was no less unexpected.

Berkhoel, who won a national championship with the University of Denver in 2004, started the season in Chicago and was projected to share time in net there with another former Gladiator, Michael Garnett. But a rash of groin injuries at the top of affiliate ladder in Atlanta, created an opportunity for both goalies to make their NHL debut.

Berkhoel saw time in eight games, his first on Oct. 15 and last on Nov. 19. The 24-year-old earned his first NHL win, making 32 saves against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 22.

"You play your whole life to get to the NHL and that's where everyone wants to go," Berkhoel said. "To get that opportunity early in my career, is a great thing for me just on a personal level.

"After my season last year I would never have expected to play in the NHL this year and it happened."

In December, Berkhoel was assigned to Gwinnett from Atlanta for a brief stint and then called up to Chicago. But from Dec. 30 to Feb. 8, Berkhoel appeared in only eight games for the Wolves and was sent to Gwinnett about six weeks ago.

"(This season I've) been fortunate, but also on the other hand it's been a step back to reality," Berkhoel said. "Obviously getting to the NHL was a great opportunity, I learned a lot the couple of months I was up there.

"Coming back here was a great chance, a good opportunity with a great team to finish out the season here and just do what I can to help win a championship."

Sharing time in net with Sean Fields, Berkhoel has quietly gone about posting a 9-2-1 record and helped the Gladiators secure a first-round bye for the playoffs.

"I don't know if there could be any better character builder, a test of your character I guess," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "And he's been awesome.

"I know he comes here and Fieldsie has been our No. 1 the whole year and I know they both struggle with not playing more. But it's a tough situation. I know I'm going to need them both. In the end, when it comes down to it, they're both going to have to be ready."

The Gladiators (46-13-7) are three points away from clinching the No. 1 seed in the American Conference and play three road games this week. Gwinnett is in Augusta tonight and Friday before traveling to North Charleston, S.C., on Saturday.

The Gladiators are a little short-handed right now, but expect to get three guys back after the weekend. All-Star forward Jeff Campbell is expected to return from AHL callup while defensemen Troy Milam and Danny Eberly will be coming off injured reserve.

But missing players hasn't stopped Gwinnett so far this season - a sign Berkhoel recognizes from his championship team in Denver.

"I think there's a lot of similarities," he said. "The ability and the character to win close games (is the same). We're putting goals on the board and we're playing well defensively. Not dominating teams - I mean, I don't want to talk or anything, but I think we are a step ahead of a lot of the other teams. But also, we've played through adversity like any championship caliber team.

"It's not all talent, it's the heart and the willingness to compete every night."