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ERIC AND GAVIN BECHTOL: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Sports are special for a variety of reasons, one such being how it seems to create bonds between people. In sports, friends become family, families become friends, and family itself comes closer together with fond memories that will last a lifetime.

Eric Bechtol, and his son Gavin share their bond through family and sports on a deeper level: they’re both Head Equipment Managers in professional hockey. On top of similarity in career path, they work within the same organization. Gavin is the Head Equipment Manager of the Rapid City Rush, while Eric not only held the same role with the Rush in the 2015-16 ECHL season, but currently holds the same role with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners.

“It’s crazy how this all comes full circle, right?” Eric, the elder Bechtol stated. “It’s awesome we’re talking about this all these years later. I never thought he’d get into equipment management as a professional, but here we are. It’s very special for me to see how far he’s come.”

The Bechtol’s story begins in 1995, the year Eric started his 25-year career in the field. That season, the Bechtol patriarch worked for the CHL’s Fort Worth Fire. One season later, Eric reached the National Hockey League and served as an Assistant Equipment Manager with the St. Louis Blues for nine seasons until the 2004-05 lockout. In 2001, Bechtol was selected to help manage the equipment of the NHL’s North American All-Star Team in the 2001 NHL All-Star Game hosted by the Colorado Avalanche. It was during these early years that memories began to form between the father and son.

“My earliest memories of life were in a hockey rink. Didn’t matter where it was, or who was playing, I was always at the rink as a kid,” Gavin Bechtol said of his initial acquaintance with hockey. “Some of my earlier memories were at the rink in Fort Worth where my dad had his first job as a Head Equipment Manager.”

“Gavin hates this story, but I have to share it from of the first times I took him to a rink during that lone season in Fort Worth,” Eric interjected with an anecdote.

“I know exactly where he’s going with this,” Gavin chimed in, facepalming while holding in laughter.

“For some random reason that still doesn’t make much sense to me, the promotion that night at the Fort Worth game was an appearance by the Philly Phanatic, the Philadelphia Phillies mascot,” Eric continued. “After the game, we decided to take advantage of a postgame photo op, and so I’m holding him for the picture. He had to be 2 at the time. Right as the picture is about to be taken, the Phanatic blasts his tongue out from his nose, like a birthday party favor, and he gets so freaked out that he’s thrashing hands and feet to get away from him. It was hilarious. Not a hockey memory by any stretch, but one I’ve certainly always cherished from the rink.”

“Any time we have family or friends over, or even the first time the family met Allison, my fiancée, he tries to dig up that blasted picture,” Gavin added. “It gives everyone a good laugh.”

Disastrous photo ops aside, the rink was where the father-son Bechtol duo grew in their relationship. Little did they both know that it prepared the youngest of the two for what he does now as a professional.

“I loved bringing Gavin to the rink. As he got older, especially in St. Louis, he’d help me with small-time chores,” Eric recalled on introducing Gavin to the world of equipment management. “Doing those small things helped him get to know some of our players at the time on a closer level too. Brett Hull was one of his favorite players growing up, and Hully was awesome with the kids, whether it was a player’s kid or a staff member’s kid. He’d always go out of his way to say hi to Gavin, and Gav would go get shower shoes, or tape, or wax for him if he needed it. The players treated him so well, so it was really special to see his love for them and for the game at such a young age.”

“Basically, my whole childhood is goofy stories at the rink,” Gavin added. “Brett Hull was always great to be around when we were in St. Louis. So was Chris Pronger. He used to surprise me all the time by grabbing me under my arms and just launching me into the air at a moment’s notice. Looking back on it, it was really easy to fall in love with that life and with the game. Sure, it’s a great deal of work and crazy hours, but those stories and memories will last with me for the rest of my life.”

After the family’s stay in St. Louis, the Bechtol’s returned to Eric’s hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he was hired as the Head Equipment Manager of the Kalamazoo Wings from 2005 to 2014. During Eric’s stay, the K-Wings passed through the IHL, UHL, and landed in ECHL, where they continue to play to this day. While with the K-Wings, the team won the 2006 Colonial Cup Championship in their UHL era. Additionally, Eric served as the 2011 ECHL All-Stars Equipment Manager against the host Bakersfield Condors. As Gavin grew older, Eric gave him more responsibility in the locker room, handling different aspects of equipment management. That meant washing and sorting player laundry, setting up the bench with towels and water bottles, hanging jerseys, and other assorted tasks as needed.

“As a bona fide equipment assistant of mine, it really started when we went back home to Kalamazoo that he began to take a more active role,” Eric continued. “He had to have been about 10 or 11. When he was done with school, he’d spend the whole weekend with me at the rink if we were playing a series at home. He’d come in, study up on the equipment managing process, and see how the whole operation worked.  Eventually, it got to a point where he and my youngest son, Caden, had so much responsibility that if they were occupied with school and couldn’t be at the rink on a game day right away, I had to call them up and ask how they set up certain things in the visitors room and on the bench. They took so much pride in the responsibilities they had that it really stood out to me. It helped them develop life skills at a very early age.”

As time went on, Gavin’s love for hockey and pride in his duties from his father turned into an unintentional apprenticeship.

“To be honest, as Gavin grew up, I didn’t try to push this on him. If anything, I tried to push him away from it because I didn’t want to force him down a path he didn’t want,” Eric recalled. “Our family has great cooking skill, so I always thought he was going on a path to be a chef, or something along those lines. I used his earlier years as my assistant just to teach and develop life skills, but it eventually set him up to perform at a professional level that, should he go to the SPHL or the ECHL and begin a career there, he’d know how to manage on his own and with limited resources.”

“I was about 11 or 12 years old when I sat down and told myself that, if I took this really seriously and buckled down, I could make this my career,” Gavin recollected. “The biggest challenge was really how to get there. It took me awhile to figure it out, but I’m glad I did.”

“I really saw his development as a potential professional much later, probably around his early teen years,” Eric recanted. “As the games and seasons went on and he got older through school, I’d essentially grill him on the job. I’d ask situational questions that may not have necessarily had a correct answer, but it would show me where his thought process was and I could assess where he was at with the roles I gave him. Over time, that increased his responsibilities further, even after I left Kalamazoo to take on more challenges in my career.”

In the 2014-15 season, Eric traveled to Europe for a new challenge as the Equipment Manager for the Nuremberg Ice Tigers, a team in the German DEL league. While overseas, the rest of the Bechtol family stayed behind in Kalamazoo, and that’s when Gavin began a different course from his father in his life.

“If you know me and my relationship with sports, you’ll know that playing baseball was always my life,” Gavin said. “While I played in high school, I suffered an injury and couldn’t pursue baseball anymore. So, I got realistic with my future and finished high school, went to college for a bit, and after schooling I had a few odd jobs. I worked in kitchens for a while and worked up to a ‘number two’ role as a sous chef in a restaurant. I was also a food trucker and a food salesman.”

After his lone season in Germany, Eric came back stateside to work for the Rapid City Rush in the 2015-16 season, where he achieved a career milestone of 1,500 games served in professional hockey. Following another solo season in the Black Hills, Eric was named the inaugural Head Equipment Manager of the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners where he currently works today.

“At the end of the day while he was gone in Germany, I appreciated the work I was doing, but I just didn’t fully enjoy it,” Gavin reflected on his career during his father’s journey overseas.  “I sat down and realized that life isn’t about money. It’s about doing something you love more than anything.”

As luck would have it, that love would come in the form of a phone call from a familiar name in the summer of 2017 while Gavin was still living in Michigan.

“One day in the offseason as I finished my shift in sales, I got a call from a former player of my dad’s, Sam Ftorek, who is the all-time games played record holder in the ECHL,” Gavin elaborated. “Sam called and told me he was recently named the Head Coach of the SPHL’s Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. He joked with me and said ‘I can’t have your dad, but I’d like to have you as our Equipment Manager. Would you be interested?’ I was floored. I had just been given an opportunity to be where my heart always called me to be, from my childhood to now. My first talk was with Allison, and she told me she didn’t want to be the guy 40 years down the road that was playing the ‘what if?’ game. After that, I had a great talk with my dad, and decided that I wanted to give it a shot. It’s been one of, if not the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

“It was nice through my career to establish a foot in the door for the family, so to speak,” Eric interjected, “but Gavin earned this on his own. He’s earned it all on his own. Sam called me after he selected Gavin and asked me basic vetting questions, then concluded the call with telling me he already hired him. It was a very special moment I got to share with him and our family that he got to begin his career in professional hockey.”

For Gavin, it was time to put everything he learned from his father to the test. He was officially the Head Equipment Manager of the SPHL’s Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, and therefore running an entire equipment department on his own.

“My dad taught me many things about professional equipment managing. The basic principle he taught me, for starters, was time management,” Gavin said. “Luckily, my early years in my dad’s room and my roles in the food industry were very similar with respect to time constraints, so acclimating to the time demand was a smooth transition.”

Of the many lessons imparted to him, being particular and organized was another that his father tried to impress early to Gavin on him at a young age. Unfortunately for Gavin, it was alson one he hilariously learned the hard way.

“If you know my dad, you know how particular he is. Everything goes in a certain spot and is done as certain way, ESPECIALLY when it comes to his skate sharpener,” Gavin told the story. “One time when I was probably 11 years old, I felt like I had watched my dad enough that I could sharpen my own skates! I decided that I would give it a shot. By the way, when I came up with this brilliant idea, it was during a game. Now keep in mind, this was before trigger steel was a thing, where I can, within an instant, pull a trigger on a player’s skates, pop his steel out, and replace it with another set to keep his edge fresh and keep him in the game. Because trigger steel wasn’t invented yet, if a player had a problem with his edge, you had to take his skate off and completely re-sharpen it.

“I was set up at my dad’s sharpener,” Gavin continued with the anecdote, “just going to town on my skates, probably destroying them in the process, and I heard the bench door click. The only thing that could be was my dad coming with a player’s skate. I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing him coming down the hall, sure enough, with a player’s skates in hand. He saw me on his sharpener, and I just froze. He looked at me, sternly, and said ‘GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW’ as forcefully as he could, with a few other choice words thrown in there as well. I was a dead duck.”

“It wasn’t one of my more fond in-game memories, that’s for sure,” Eric shot back.

“At first I thought he was going to kill me,” Gavin finished, “but I think he also had a moment where he wanted to be mad, but also thought ‘eh…that’s my kid I guess.’ Youthful mistakes like that aside, he’s been a great role model, and a great part of my life. It’s been special to be on this journey with him by my side. He made the rink a special place for me as a child, and I’ve been able to carry that into my career.”

After all the lessons, and one season in Roanoke, Gavin moved to Rapid City to work with the Rush as the Head Equipment Manager, a role he’s set to reprise for a third season this fall.

“Coincidence in career field is one thing, but to pass through the same team within a handful of years is other-wordly,” Eric said of his son’s arrival in Rapid City. “Just like Roanoke, Gavin earned the call-up entirely on his own. In the same manner of Sam Ftorek, Coach Tetrault called me up to ask about Gavin, only to conclude the call by telling me he hired him.

“To talk about all of this around Father’s Day, it makes me immensely proud to have seen not only how much Gavin has grown as a professional, but as a person as well,” Eric reflected on his fatherhood with Gavin. “It’s funny, but for as much as I tried to teach him about life and this job, he’s taught me just as much. We’ll swap equipment ideas, we’ll talk life, and everything in between. I couldn’t be happier to see him continue the ‘family business’, and to keep making the Bechtol name that was passed down by my fathers before me proud.”

“The most special part for me on all of this is, just like Dad said, we talk every day,” Gavin added. “I’m sure people all over have the opportunity to talk to their fathers on a regular basis, but our talks span so much. Dad has helped me accomplish so much in life and has been so influential that I simply don’t know where I’d be as an equipment manager or a person without him.

“I’m happy I’ve continued to honor our family the best I can,” Gavin concluded, “but my ultimate goal for my family, my name, and my father is to one day make it to the National Hockey League just like he did. Even further than that, I want to be a part of a team that wins the Stanley Cup, and have the Bechtol name engraved on the most beautiful trophy in all of sports. If I could do that and help continue to create a legacy of Bechtols in professional hockey, that for me would be a life well lived. Until then, I’ll continue to get better every day, and learn from my father as much as I can. To all father’s out there, I hope you all enjoyed a Happy Father’s Day!”

 
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