Team manager's positive outlook lives on with Notre Dame hockey team
By Jonah L. Rosenblum
Feb 06, 2018 at 3:44 PM
It was almost 10 months to the day after Andrew Berghoff died and Mount Prospect Ice Arena was packed.
Packed is putting it lightly. Notre Dame hockey coach Bart Czachor said he had never seen a crowd like it, at least not in the regular season.
Then again, it was more than a regular-season high school hockey game. It was a fundraiser for the Burke Scholars Program, which provides a Catholic education to children with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. Berghoff was a sophomore in the program at the time of his death. The game also was a celebration of the life Berghoff lived.
"I've done hockey for 30 years," Czachor said. "We haven't had that many people for a home game ever. It shows you how he touched us."
Berghoff touched the Ice Dons and a community extending well beyond Niles and Mount Prospect without ever playing a game. He couldn't play after he was born with a rare birth defect, congenital diaphragmatic hernia, which is a hole in the muscle between the chest and the abdomen. Doctors told Berghoff's parents that he had a 30 percent chance to survive his birth, but Berghoff lived well beyond that, and did play hockey, his favorite sport, when he was younger.
He was on a feeding tube from 3 months old to the day he died, and that made competitive hockey at a certain level out of the question.
"His size and strength being on a liquid diet wasn't what you'd get with a full diet," said his father, Paul Berghoff. "Once (hockey) got bigger and more physical, we no longer felt safe allowing him to play."
But hockey was always a part of his life — from skating on the Berghoff's rink in their backyard with his three brothers, all hockey players, to attending Blackhawks' Stanley Cup games — and Notre Dame gave him the chance to be on a team once more as a manager for the JV.
Andrew Berghoff was so much a part of the Notre Dame hockey team that it was easy for his teammates to forget about his health.
"He was just one of us," Czachor said. "Not knowing anything was wrong, that's the craziest thing. When we first got wind of him being sick, the week before he started to get sick, he was on the ice with us practicing."
That was how the Berghoff family wanted it — they wanted their son to have as normal a life as possible.
"That was important to us as a family," said his mother, Lisa Berghoff. "He had some issues to deal with, but everybody has issues. We didn't think it was fair to him to dwell on those things and focus on those things even though they were a big part of his life. ... He went through a lot. He had a lot to complain about. He never did."
Andrew Berghoff, who lived in Chicago's Sauganash neighborhood, refused to let his health get in the way. He rarely, if ever, talked about the pain he faced. He worked as a skate guard for the Wilmette Park District and also worked in the Queen of All Saints rectory, helping with food preparation along with other tasks. He was so charming that Paul and Lisa Berghoff thought some day he might make a fine maître d' at the family restaurant, The Berghoff, in downtown Chicago.
"He had a determination and a will of epic proportion to never look at himself as limited," Paul Berghoff said. "He lived with a huge, beaming smile."
But there was nothing quite like hockey — and his love for the ice.
"He would always ask every year if he could now play," Lisa Berghoff said. "He never lost that desire to play."
And he wouldn't necessarily take "no" for an answer. One time, according to Paul Berghoff, Czachor turned his back at practice and the next thing he knew Andrew Berghoff was in line waiting to take a shot on net. Czachor could've been mad, Paul Berghoff noted, but simply told his players, "You all got to do me a favor and make darn sure you don't hit him."
"He just kind of fit in," Czachor said. "He'd have done anything in his power to play."
When Andrew Berghoff died on March 19, 2017, at the age of 17 due to complications from the flu and bacterial pneumonia, it was a stunning blow for an Ice Dons team that barely knew their beloved manager was at risk.
The funeral was on March 24 of that year Queen of All Saints Basilica and Notre Dame canceled school so students could attend.
"I don't think anyone knew, no one else understood what he went through, how his life was until he passed away," Czachor said. "He always had a smile on his face. Dealing with what he was dealt, you wouldn't think that would be the case, but it's a lesson for all of us. Take every day with a grain of salt and enjoy every day."
Andrew Berghoff's lifelong message to keep smiling is tangible.
His jersey now hangs in the Notre Dame locker room alongside a plaque adorned with Andrew Berghoff's always-smiling face. It's going to stay there, Czachor said.
Andrew Berghoff will follow the Ice Dons wherever they go, literally.
When Andrew Berghoff first joined the program, he brought a duffle bag to practice that he got from his older brother, Matthew, who played hockey for St. Ignatius. A couple of practices in, Paul Berghoff realized his son was bringing a St. Ignatius bag to Notre Dame practices and searched for an Ice Dons duffle bag. He couldn't find one.
At the Jan. 21 game honoring his son, Paul Berghoff presented the team with Notre Dame hockey bags, with Andrew Berghoff's number, 2, and the slogan that defined him: "Keep Smiling."
"Now you have this bag, and everywhere you go, you think of him. It puts a smile on your face. No matter what you do or where you're at it, it's going to be OK," Czachor said. "The hard part is we wish we still had him."
Jonah L. Rosenblum is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.