Mounds View Captain Fills Role Through Leukemia Fight

Updated: 03/05/2013 10:16 PM KSTP.com By: Chris Long

Click the video box on this page to see 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS' story on Josh Lavalle as it aired.

Josh Lavalle is the captain of the Mounds View Mustangs hockey team.

...even if his role did change a bit last spring.

Lavalle was playing in a baseball game, when he felt more tired than usual.  That prompted the first of what would be dozens upon dozens of hospital visits in the months to come.

"I was playing baseball the night before and all of the sudden I'm in the hospital," Lavalle says. "They did a bunch of tests, and then told me I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia."

"I was kind of shocked," he continues. "It didn't hit me right away. It took a couple days, but once I got my port in - I was like, 'Ok, now I have to start going at it'."

Lavalle initially was told he might be able to play when hockey season began, but intense chemotherapy treatments eventually kept him off the ice.

"I was on these steroids and they poofed my cheeks out and I'd look in the mirror and wouldn't even see myself," he says. "It was tough to walk outside. I just wouldn't feel like myself."

Things started to change for the better in January, when a window between treatments meant he'd be able to suit up for a couple games.

"I probably wasn't in the best shape to go out there"," Josh laughs. "But I wasn't going to take no for an answer at that point. I just kind of went out there and had fun. It was awesome."

Lavalle started in his return against Hastings, recording an assist.  He was on the ice for four of Mounds View's goals in a 6-1 win.

It was an emotional night for Lavalle and the entire Mustangs team.

"It was crazy," says Josh's teammate, friend and ride-to-practice copilot John Sarafolean. "It was an unreal atmosphere."

"For the first 5-6 minutes, I didn't even know what Hastings was doing," says coach Rick Thomas. "It was 'How is he... how's he doing... how is he responding... how are his feet moving?'"

"But after watching him for a while I realized, 'Oh my gosh - he's almost back to himself, let's start playing hockey again'. It was amazing to watch, it really was."

After a return to treatments ended his brief return to the roster, Lavalle made it a point to stay around the team serving as an assistant coach. 

Despite the time-commitment of twice-daily chemotherapy and the exhaustion the treatments brought on, he was there for virtually every practice and every game.

"He's still part of the team," Sarafolean says. "He's here every day. He's probably one of the most dedicated kids."

"It gets (my) mind off the treatments," Lavalle says. "That what I like, to get my mind off the treatments... lets you get away, kind of."

His dedication amazed his coach, who already knew his senior captain had a heart of gold.

"You watch a kid like that sit out in this cold rink every day to support his guys - just to be around his buddies... It's a great thing to see," Thomas says.

Lavalle's dedication left a huge impression upon his friends and teammates.

"I just try to live life to the fullest, don't let things bother me," Sarafolean says. "I see what he's going through and I'm thinking, 'Well, I may have girl problems or homework or things like that', but that's the last of his problems, he's just here to live."

For his part, Lavalle saw little choice in how to handle the situation.

"I just try to keep a positive attitude to be honest," he says. "I can't change it... So... what else can I do?"

"Every single guy in that locker room looks up to him as a leader," Thomas says. "As much as he wants to be on the ice and we want him on the ice, he's still a huge part of this team."

"From the beginning, he said one of his fears was losing friends because he'd be home and not at school as much," Sarafolean says. "But we're all still here."

Not only has Lavalle's perseverance and dedication inspired his team, he may have found a career plan for the future.

"I was talking to my nurses... I know more about medicine than a kid my age ever should. I've thought about medical stuff but it's a lot of education, so I don't know about that," he laughs. "But I've been thinking about coaching."

That's a plan his own coach can definitely see coming to fruition.

"Oh, I definitely see it. He would come to the side and say, 'Hey coach, lets run this play' and it's like, 'yeah do your thing'," Thomas laughs.  "I think we were in Duluth and I told him 'I can see you doing it, but you gotta watch the language'. He does get really emotional, but that's who Josh is!"

Presently, Josh continues to face his daily chemotherapy regimen.  He'll move to monthly maintenance treatments in May, and his long-term outlook is very good for recovery

In the meantime, all he can do is continue living up to advice we heard him calling out to his team from the bench during a close, hard-fought game:

"Don't look back now boys,' he called. "Don't look back! Don't give in!"

"We don't give up now!"