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Mounds View boys' hockey coach Rick Thomas admitted that last Saturday's game against Hastings "was the first time behind the bench I didn't care about the game early on."
Senior defenseman Josh Lavalle, making his season debut between leukemia treatments, occupied Thomas' focus.
How is he moving? Will he get fatigued? Will he get hit hard?
Lavalle assuaged his coach's fears, as well as his own pregame jitters, with a solid performance. Mounds View won 6-1 before a packed arena. Lavalle was on the ice for five of the goals and contributed an assist.
"I've been waiting to play for a long time," Lavalle said. "It felt good knowing you can do what you put your mind to doing."
Diagnosed in early June with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Lavalle said doctors gave him a 90 percent chance of beating his cancer into remission but warned the weekly chemotherapy treatments could cost him his senior season of hockey.
Lavalle, an All-Suburban East Conference honorable mention pick as a junior, held out hope for making a return. Saturday's game fell during a break between treatment cycles. Blood work drawn last week revealed a high platelet count, meaning a cut or bruise would not be problematic. So Dr. Frank Rimell cleared him to practice Friday and play Saturday.
Players sent texts to Thomas, requesting to be in the starting lineup with Lavalle. Those chosen were among the ones closest to Lavalle: T.J. Conlin, Nate Douvier, Max Knutson and John Sarafolean.
Announced last, Lavalle received a rousing ovation from the most boisterous crowd Thomas has seen at the Mustangs' home arena in Shoreview. He also noticed Hastings players tapping their sticks on the ice in support.
"I was feeling pretty normal, pretty even keel," said Lavalle before adding, "I was surprised because I thought I'd be pretty up and down."
Lavalle wound up missing only one shift in the third period to catch his breath. Thomas said Lavalle's time away from hockey was not evident.
"He was patient with the puck, he was making passes and he was even blocking shots," Thomas said. "He had no concerns. He was playing hockey again, and I think that was what he needed."
Saturday could have been the first and last game of his truncated season. An aggressive treatment begins soon, bringing back hair loss, mouth sores, fatigue and headaches.
"I'd like to play more for sure," Lavalle said. Playing Saturday, he said, will inspire him to keep fighting "on those days when it's tough to get out of bed."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574