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Defenseman battling leukemia

06/16/2012, 3:07pm CDT
By David La Vaque

Mounds View's Josh Lavalle vows to fight, skate next season

Members of Mounds View’s boys’ hockey team labored through a dryland session last Friday at the Herb Brooks Training Center in Blaine, capped by a series of timed 20-yard sprints.

Eager to join his fellow Mustangs, captain Josh Lavalle settled for a supporting role. His right hand noted the times called out by Mounds View coach Rick Thomas. Two hospital bracelets adorned his left wrist, reminders of why he cannot sprint or even leisurely skate.

Diagnosed in early June with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Lavalle undergoes weekly chemotherapy treatments that leave him fatigued. The upside – doctors gave him a 90 percent chance of beating his cancer into remission. And Lavalle, an all-Suburban East Conference honorable mention defenseman, plans to resume his post on the Mustangs’ blueline as a senior this fall. He hopes to be skating again toward summer’s end.

As he announced on Twitter: “I will get through this.”

Steadfast determination doesn’t make all the doubts and fears stay away. ALL, according to www.marrow.org, “is a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells.” Lavalle’s bone marrow, “makes lots of uniformed cells called blasts that normally would develop into lymphocytes.” But the blasts inside Lavalle’s body are abnormal, not developing and unable to fight infections.

“I worry about getting back to normal,” Lavalle said. “I feel sometimes like I can’t go out because I might get sick. My parents have tried to tell me I don’t have to live in a bubble.”

His friends and teammates are coming to grips with their own worries. John Sarafolean, who will be a senior this fall, said Lavalle’s situation shook the Mustangs – who previous felt the air of invincibility common in high school athletes.

“It’s pretty crazy – unreal,” Sarafolean said. “You get a text from a buddy that says he has cancer. When it’s close to you, it’s scary. You think about what he has to go through and it breaks your heart.”

Lavalle receives his chemotherapy treatments through a port in his chest. He said doctors put him on a three-year treatment plan.

Sarafolean and the Mustangs sold T-shirts at school to raise money for Lavalle. The front reads, “Together we fight. Together we win.”

Those statements echo Lavalle’s playing style. Coach Thomas lauded Lavalle’s strong, solid play at both ends of the rink and his courage to block shots.

“That comes from the heart,” Thomas said. “You don’t wish cancer upon any kid but if there is one who can knock this thing dead it’s Josh. He has that drive to stay positive.”

Being around teammates last Friday helped nurture Lavalle’s fighting spirit. The feeling was contagious. Friends who visited him at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital or stopped by the house to play hockey or golf video games reveled in seeing Lavalle in a more familiar environment.

“When he walked in you could see all the kids’ eyes go to him,” Thomas said. “You could tell they thought it was pretty cool to see him here. There was a lot of positive energy.”

Said Lavalle: “It was good to laugh with the guys.”

A pair of Mounds View youth hockey alumni made Lavalle’s day even more memorable. Mike Hoeffel, a forward in the New Jersey Devils organization, and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh stopped to visit with Lavalle. The trio spent 40 minutes talking a lot about hockey and a little about life.

“He’s in awe,” Thomas said with a laugh as he introduced Lavalle to Hoeffel and McDonagh. “I’ve never seen him rub his legs so much.”

Lavalle found the courage to say he “liked” McDonagh’s playoff fight with Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils. He asked McDonagh, not a fighter by trade, if it felt weird to drop the gloves.

“You don’t plan for them,” said McDonagh, who won the state's Mr. Hockey award as a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall. “You play the game and those things kind of happen.”

Aware they were in the presence of a fighter themselves, Hoeffel and McDonagh inquired about Lavalle’s situation.

“How do you like being around your teammates again?” asked Hoeffel, who played at Hill-Murray and for the Gophers. Lavalle acknowledged it was good to be back. Hoeffel replied, “It’s always uplifting, right?”

“What’s next in terms of your treatments?” McDonagh asked. Lavalle shared his Tuesday chemotherapy treatments and their impact on his stamina. “You look good,” McDonagh said with encouragement.

McDonagh gave Lavalle a signed New York Rangers puck. He and Hoeffel signed jerseys which will be framed. Hoeffel wrote on his Gophers jersey, “ Josh – All the best. Stay strong bud! – Mike.”

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