GRAND FORKS — Joel Janatuinen is in Finland right now.
He signed with a team in the second tier of Finnish pro hockey this summer, scored five goals in the first three games and quickly earned a deal with a team in the top league, TPS. Once he moved up a league, Janatuinen scored two more goals in his first game there and breathed a deep sigh of relief as things are slowly returning to normal.
It has been a long road for Janatuinen, who dealt with constant health problems for his final two and a half years at the University of North Dakota. Janatuinen said the last time he felt normal at UND was Christmas break of his sophomore year.
After that, he had a back injury, hip surgery and a mysterious health issue — one that doctors have not identified to this day — that made him constantly fatigued during his final two years and kept him from playing almost all of his senior season.
This week, Janatuinen opened up about all of his health challenges. Speaking by phone from Finland, Janatuinen detailed the origins of his health problems, the frustrations of it not improving and his ongoing battle to get back to full health.
First signs of trouble
Janatuinen had a dream start to his college career.
As a freshman, he played in 35 of 44 games, helping UND win the 2016 NCAA national championship in Tampa. Janatuinen played in all four NCAA tournament games, tallying an assist in the regional final against Michigan. He finished that season with four goals and nine points.
As a sophomore, Janatuinen started to emerge offensively, finishing the year with eight goals and 19 points, more than doubling his freshman total. But that season is when the first signs of trouble arrived.
After Christmas break, Janatuinen suffered a back injury during a workout. For a while, Janatuinen could only play one game per weekend. He would play Friday night, then his back would lock up Saturday and he had to be scratched.
Doctors figured out that Janatuinen's hip needed surgery after the season, so soon after North Dakota lost to Boston University in double overtime of an NCAA tournament game, Janatuinen had the operation. It was the first time he ever had surgery.
"I was rehabbing and everything and my hip didn't feel great," Janatuinen said. "I've never had surgery before. I didn't feel like my body reacted to it very well. I talked to a buddy who had the same surgery. His did well. My muscles were super sore. I didn't feel quite right. I figured I was in bad shape and that's all it was."
So, Janatuinen started pushing harder. But now, he thinks that might have been the problem.
When his junior season started, he wanted a similarly big jump for his years as an upperclassman. But he still didn't feel right. So, he did extra conditioning and extra training to try to get back to normal. His hip was still sore, but he assumed he was just in bad shape.
"As the season went on, a few weeks in, I'd start getting these weekends where I'd feel super good on Friday," Janatuinen said. "I felt like I was getting my touch back, my flow again and I felt really, really good. Then, the next day, for Saturday, I'd feel just awful. Completely awful. My body absolutely, completely put on the brakes. I couldn't skate, I couldn't stick handle. I couldn't shoot. It was super, super weird. I had never experienced anything like that before. It was pretty baffling.”
It showed in his production. Janatuinen had three points in the first four games of the season. Then, he had four points in the next 14 games.
After Christmas, he thought he was feeling better until a game in Bemidji.
"I started getting the same old stuff again. I started wondering what's going on. It didn't make any sense to me. I had never felt anything like that before."
At that point, Janatuinen finally brought it up to trainers and doctors.
They did all sorts of tests. They checked his heart. They did bloodwork. Nothing came back out of the ordinary.
Janatuinen kept playing, but it kept getting worse. He only missed two games in the second half of that season, but his production wasn't what he had hoped. After his symptoms re-appeared, he had four points in the final 16 games -- all goals. He ended that season with six goals and 13 points.
Nightmare senior season
Janatuinen rested during the summer, but once he returned to practice in the fall, the symptoms immediately returned.
It wasn't just the fatigue. There were a couple of other odd symptoms as well. Janatuinen said he had trouble balancing on one foot and he felt like his heart was pounding out of his chest.
When he wasn't at the rink, Janatuinen was often at home Googling his symptoms.
"I can't tell you how many hours I spent researching, trying to figure out what was going on," he said.
Although at one point Janatuinen seemed to start feeling better after taking Vitamin D and some different supplements, it didn’t last long. On Thanksgiving weekend, UND hosted Alaska-Anchorage in a two-game series.
"It was super tough because I felt so good at Miami," he said. "So, when it all went to crap again, it was so crushing. When we played Anchorage, I felt just awful. That was kind of the breaking point for me. I just couldn't take it anymore."
Janatuinen and the coaching staff decided to shut him down for the rest of the first half of the season. He again returned home for Christmas break. He again started to feel better.
He played in the team's exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team on Dec. 29. But then he quickly started to feel worse.
UND went to Buffalo, N.Y., to play a two-game series against Canisius College on the first weekend of January. Janatuinen was in the lineup Friday night.
"It was awful," he said. "I would take two strides on the ice and feel so exhausted. I felt like I couldn't move. I couldn't really do anything. That was pretty much it."
That was the last time Janatuinen played a game for UND. North Dakota ended up missing the NCAA tournament for a second straight season — something that greatly frustrated Janatuinen because he was unable to contribute to a stretch run.
"It was really tough not being able to bring to the table what I knew I could have," Janatuinen said. "Even junior year was pretty much hell on earth. I feel like I never got to realize my full potential at UND, which I hope I'm going to show in the next couple of seasons — even this season. It just sucks thinking that I missed out on two of the best years of my hockey career, making a breakthrough at UND and really contributing. That's what I was expecting. Sophomore year went pretty well. I had high expectations for myself. When that didn't come true, it was so hard mentally. I'm going to have to live with that. It is what it is. I came out stronger in the end.”
Janatuinen stayed in Grand Forks during the summer to earn his degree in kinesiology.
Despite his health problems, Janatuinen kept his aspirations to play pro hockey.
He earned a tryout for a team in Finland's top league in May, but he knew that would be challenging, because he hadn't exercised in so long.
"I was in such bad shape that I couldn't keep up at all," he said. "It was definitely an experience. I didn't get a contract, but I gained a lot of steam from that. I was able to actually do stuff and I didn't get worse. So, it was really, really encouraging and my mentality changed."
Janatuinen eventually earned a contract with a team in Finland's second league, TUTO Hockey. He played in the team's first few exhibition games, but didn't feel great. Even so, Janatuinen said he wasn't getting progressively worse like he did during his junior and senior season.
Once the regular-season games started, Janatuinen took off.
He scored five times in three games, catching the attention of TPS — the first-tier team in the same town of Turku, Finland. Janatuinen has since joined that team.
"Right now, I feel a million times better," he said. "I can actually skate a shift without getting absolutely gassed out. I'm just enjoying every day, every practice, just like how it was before. It's an awesome feeling and a great relief.”
To this day, Janatuinen still wonders what triggered his fatigue and other symptoms. And there was never a diagnosis. But Janatuinen is thankful he's been able to make enough progress that he's been able to continue his hockey career.
"Hockey is the only thing I've ever wanted to do," he said. "It's been my dream. At my worst, that's what made it so awful. I started thinking that if this doesn't go away, I'm never going to get back to how I was, playing how I was. That's what made it so tough. But I never gave up on it."