EDINA, Minn. — For former St. Cloud State defenseman Kevin Gravel, the 2019-20 pro hockey season was one where he spent a lot more time off the ice than he wanted to. Then when he got back on the ice, the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season.
"It was a bit of a weird year for me," said Gravel, who was in his first season in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. "I had a bit of a flare up with my Crohn's disease. About a month into the season, I had to go back into the hospital and then I was out for three months. I pretty much missed November through February and then right when I was coming back, they shut everything down.
"I went through training camp, played (three) games for the Leafs. When I got sent down to the (AHL's Toronto) Marlies, I played a few games and that's when everything fell off the rails for me."
1st diagnosed in 2017
Gravel was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2017. Once doctors found out what was causing his physical issues, they found a medication that had been working for him.
In 2016-17, Gravel had seven points and was a plus-3 in 49 games with the the NHL's Los Angeles Kings after playing six games with the team's AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign. Then came after a scary and challenging summer of 2017.
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"We got home from the (2016-17) season and I felt fine and everything was relatively normal," said Gravel, who added that he began working out with former Huskies teammate Nic Dowd when things changed. "I jumped back into workouts with Dowder and I would get home from workouts and I'd be completely spent. I couldn't get out of bed for the rest of the day, which is not normal. Normally, I'd just get home and be tired, but go about my day.
"But I'd go home and go to bed, have no appetite and started losing weight. My girlfriend — now my wife — kind of put some pressure on me to go in and get looked at. Maybe I had a bug and just needed an antibiotic. Clearly, something was wrong, but I just didn't know what it was."
All of the blood work for Gravel came back normal. Then he had a colonoscopy and the day after, things went from bad to worse.
"I was in pain, so I went into the (emergency room) at like 4 in the morning and they admitted me then," he said. "I still didn't know what I had. They hadn't really gotten back to me on my colonoscopy yet. They admitted me for dehydration.
"I had an (abscess) drained and the doctors met and figured out what was wrong with me. I was in the hospital for about a week and they were trying to figure out the path to take. I went home and it got worse and I ended up losing about 40 pounds ... I was down to 170."
Gravel is 6-foot-4 and the loss of that weight came in a short period of time.
"I started losing weight in the hospital and I was in the hospital over the Fourth of July," he said of 2017. "My wife had a wedding that she went home for a wedding and she was only gone for 2-3 days. In that quick time, I lost about 20 pounds. She came back and didn't recognize me.
"You're not eating and you're feeling like junk. I was kind of wiltering away while they were figuring out what was going on."
Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation.
"Basically, your body is fighting your immune system," he said.
Getting to Toronto
On top of dealing with his physical problems, Gravel was also negotiating with the Los Angeles Kings for a contract for the 2017-18 season. The Kings, who drafted him in fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, signed him to a two-way deal.
"Stress can be a trigger for (Crohn's) and I was trying not to get too worked up, but I was still a young kid and trying to get my feet wet and established in the league," he said. "But the Kings were great through all that and told me to concentrate on getting better."
Doctors found a medication that worked for Gravel and, in 2017-18, Gravel had 11 points and 17 penalty minutes in 25 games for the Reign and he also had three assists in 16 games with the Kings. After the season, he signed with the Edmonton Oilers. He played in 36 games with the Oilers and five games with Edmonton's AHL affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors, in 2018-19.
Before last season, he signed a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs and was reunited with former St. Cloud State forward Kalle Kossila, who had also signed with Toronto.
"Later in the summer, (Kossila) texted me about being a teammate again," Gravel said of his two-year teammate in college. "We spent a lot of time together because we lived about a three-minute walk away from each other. He would come over for dinner.
"He's the same player: super talented, very smart. But he was a little banged up and I don't think we played a game together, but we were still around each other a lot. It's always good in a new organization ... there are guys you've maybe played with before or against, but to have a familiar face like that is great. He loves the game so much and was always ready to go. It was good to have him around."
But when Gravel's medication lost its effectiveness in the fall of 2019, he spent several months trying medications to find one to help get his Crohn's under control. It was more frustrating than frightening, he said.
"It was so scary the first time because I didn't know what Crohn's disease was," he said of 2017. "This year, it wasn't as bad, but it was more frustrating because I just couldn't believe we were back to square 1 again."
The Maple Leafs are one of the 24 teams that has made the NHL playoffs and Gravel was invited to join the team for workouts, but he could not get medically cleared because Crohn's affects the immune system. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, Gravel said he understands.
Dealing with uncertainty
Gravel and Morgan Lof got married almost two years ago. Lof, who played basketball at St. Cloud State from 2009-13, is a dental hygienist. Gravel said that his wife was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis years before he met her, but her battle with that autoimmune disorder and her outlook has helped him through his challenges with Crohn's.
"My wife has been the rock through this whole thing," he said. "She went through it herself with a different disease when she was younger. I really didn't know what was going on, but she had been through (something similar)."
Because he and his wife both have autoimmune concerns, Gravel said that they have been particularly cautious during the pandemic. He is skating regularly again, but has not worked out in a gym and he is wearing a mask wherever he goes.
"It's almost gotten to the point where it's weird not to have (a mask) on, which sounds kind of weird," he said.
Gravel remains under contract with Toronto until the postseason ends and then he will be a free agent. And there are a lot of unknowns for pro players for the 2020-21 season. For instance, when will the next season begin? Free agency typically begins July 1 and that, along with the draft and everything else, has been postponed.
"We're playing the waiting game right now," Gravel said. "I was actually talking to my wife about this the other day and by mid-July, we usually know where we are going. We blinked and it's July 9th today. It's crazy. You don't know how long we're going to have to wait for things to happen.
"You just have to work out and skate and this may be a longer period of time to get into better shape."