Whether the 15-year-old Josh Karels is just chilling with his Cottage Grove teammates or lacing up his blades for practice, the world of pucks, sticks, and locker room sweat serves as refuge from a rare immune deficiency disease that is eating away at his body.
"Hockey really is everything to the kid," says Karels' grandfather Rick Bertz. "When he's on the ice with his teammates, he's able to forget all else that's going on."
The spunky youngster first hit a wall hard at age five, befallen by pneumonia, an asthma attack, and a collapsed lung all at the same time. Doctors were left scurrying to find out what was wreaking all this havoc.
"Hypogammaglobulinemia" would be the diagnosis. It's an immune disorder that can be congenital, in which the body struggles to fight off common infections. Karels' case is doubly perilous.
"His body doesn't produce some types of antibodies, while at the same time producing too much of others," Bertz says. "In Josh's case, it's resulted in his body rejecting his organs just like you see sometimes with transplant patients. His body thinks his own organs are foreign."
Doctors have performed 20 surgeries. Most recently, they removed Karels' gallbladder, which was preceded by extractions of his sinuses, large intestine, and parts of the small intestine.
The cannibalizing disorder has now set its sights on Karels' liver, where inflammation has already advanced to an intermediate stage.
"Incurable liver failure is what it likely means," says Bertz. "Right now, we're hoping to slow down the inflammatory process."
Every three weeks, Karels visits Children's Hospital in St. Paul, where his system is intravenously boosted by antibodies. While insurance pays for a chunk of the $13,000 treatment, family co-pays add up fast, as do trips to specialists at Rochester's Mayo Clinic and, later this year, Boston's Children's Hospital.
In December, Bertz set up the Save Josh Karels gofundme page to help offset the mounting expenses.
"Right now, we're in a holding pattern," Bertz says, "seeing how his body responds to the medication he's taking that's meant to slow down what's going on with his liver."
A playoff run wouldn't hurt, either. Karels' fourth-ranked squad plays Delano in the first round of the playoffs tonight. Though he won't be suiting up, Karels' resilience will undoubtedly stoke his teammates.
The player would also be pumped to see the Minnesota Wild stage a late-season push.
"That would certainly make him happy," says his grandfather. "Hockey brings him joy."