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 Univeristy 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, for the first time, 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.

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Question No. 1: When did this all begin during his senior season?

"OK," Janatuinen said. "This might take a while. Sophomore year, actually."

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.

He tallied a hat trick in the first month of the season, scored the go-ahead goal in the third period of UND's Madison Square Garden victory over Boston College and finished 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.

"It locked up super bad," he said. "Really, really bad. It wouldn't open up again."

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. For a month, Janatuinen played one game per weekend.

By the end of the season, he pushed through the injury and was playing both nights.

Doctors figured out that Janatuinen's hip needed surgery after the season, so soon after the Fighting Hawks 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.

Junior season challenges

Janatuinen had big expectations for his junior season.

He made a jump in offensive production from nine points as a freshman to 19 as a sophomore. He wanted a similarly big jump for his years as an upperclassman.

When the season started, Janatuinen 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.

"As the semester went on, I started getting less and less of those good days and both Friday and Saturday were pretty bad. I was pretty exhausted by the time Christmas break rolled around."

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.

Janatuinen returned home to Finland during Christmas break and rested. He skated with his friends a few times, but only worked out once. The rest seemed to pay off.

"When I got back, I felt unreal," he said. "I felt just awesome on the ice. We played USA (U.S. Under-18 Team) and I felt great. The next weekend, we played Omaha at home and I felt great both games. I was thinking, 'OK, this is good. We're probably done with all of that.'

"Then, the next weekend, it was Bemidji. And 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.

"I'd be super exhausted after a two-game weekend," he said. "It was so different. It affected everything. I felt like 100 times worse at hockey. Everything was worse. I had to put so much effort just to move forward on the ice. I was playing just awful. It was like I was trying to survive, really.

"That second semester was pretty rough. My only goal was to get through it. I wasn't recovering from games. We checked my heart rate for anything abnormal. We checked my blood. We took blood samples. Everything was fine. I pushed through the rest of the year and thought it would get better over the summer and I'll get some rest."

Janatuinen 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.

UND's Joel Janatuinen (#25) and Nick Jones (#8) celebrate a goal during Saturday's win over Omaha at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
UND's Joel Janatuinen (#25) and Nick Jones (#8) celebrate a goal during Saturday's win over Omaha at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

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.

"A couple weekends in, I started to get really frustrated," Janatuinen said. "I wasn't enjoying it. I was always a guy who loved practice, loved staying after practice and doing extra stuff, loved shooting pucks and messing around. I was always one of the last guys off the ice. Now, I was the first guy off the ice, because I felt terrible out there. I was just miserable."

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.

North Dakota Fighting Hawks forward Joel Janatuinen (25) passes the puck as Minnesota Golden Gophers defenseman Sam Rossini (28) defends during the first period of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Richard Brian Las Vegas Review-Journal @vegasphotograph
North Dakota Fighting Hawks forward Joel Janatuinen (25) passes the puck as Minnesota Golden Gophers defenseman Sam Rossini (28) defends during the first period of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Richard Brian Las Vegas Review-Journal @vegasphotograph

Finally, after a home series against Wisconsin in early November, Janatuinen approached the coaching and training staff to tell them that he's still not feeling well.

"I said, 'This is still a thing. This is still going on. What can I do?'" Janatuinen said. "I thought about bringing it up a couple times before then. But we ran those tests and everything was fine. I figured, 'What's everyone going to think if I say I feel awful?' That kept me from telling everyone how I was feeling. I was scared how everyone would react. But at the point when I actually did say something, I had to do it, because I couldn't do it anymore. I was just terrified and, mentally, I was running out of energy."

Janatuinen started taking Vitamin D and some different supplements. He immediately started feeling better.

The next week, UND was slated to go to Oxford, Ohio, to play Miami University.

"I felt great all week in practice," Janatuinen said. "I felt normal for the first time in a year and a half. I had so much fun. I was so happy. I thought, again, maybe this is it. I'm finally back to normal."

Janatuinen played in both games at Miami and felt great.

Then, after the games, he started getting worse and worse again.

"I thought, 'Oh no, this can't be happening again,'" he said. "Day by day, I kept getting worse. We played Western (Michigan) the next week at home. I felt OK at that point, but I already knew it was going down again."

It kept getting worse every day. 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. I felt so good that one weekend. I felt like normal. I felt like I could play at this level again. Then it went to crap. Mentally, it was so tough."

Janatuinen and the coaching staff decided to shut him down for the rest of the first half of the season.

"I knew the only thing that ever made it better was rest," he said. "The more I practiced and the more I played, the worse I felt."

Janatuinen 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. Janatuinen 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.

A few weeks after the Canisius series, Janatuinen started feeling good again out of nowhere. So, he jumped back into practice.

"Obviously, it went right down the drain again," he said. "Going back and forth like that was just really, really mentally draining. It was at that point when I realized it was going to take a lot more time. It had been almost two years of playing through it. I kind of realized that it's not going to go away in a week or two. It's going to take time.

"The worst thing was the uncertainty. I didn't know if I actually had something that didn't show up. I didn't know whether it was ever going to go away. I saw doctors. They ran all the possible tests. Nothing seemed to be wrong. It was very frustrating, because I felt so awful and I had nothing to show for it. You feel awful, and there's nothing you can say you have."

UND's Joel Janatuinen looks to get his stick on the puck as Colorado College goalie Alex LeClerc keeps his eye on the puck Friday at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.  Eric Hylden/ Forum News Service
UND's Joel Janatuinen looks to get his stick on the puck as Colorado College goalie Alex LeClerc keeps his eye on the puck Friday at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden/ Forum News Service

Missing Janatuinen

Without Janatuinen, UND struggled in a few different ways.

When he was in the lineup during the first two months of the season, he played on a line with classmate Rhett Gardner. After Thanksgiving weekend -- the last time Janatuinen played outside of the few shifts at Canisius -- Gardner was leading the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in goals. After Janatuinen went out, Gardner didn't score another goal at UND.

UND 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.

"Obviously, it sucks it had to happen this way, because I love UND, I love Grand Forks, I loved playing there. It's heartbreaking, but what can you do?"

Janatuinen stayed in Grand Forks during the summer to earn his degree in Kinesiology.

Former UND forward Joel Janatuinen looks for a puck during a game against Miami University. Herald File Photo.
Former UND forward Joel Janatuinen looks for a puck during a game against Miami University. Herald File Photo.

Turning pro

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 began working out again.

"Although I didn't feel the greatest, I felt a million times better than I did when I was in Grand Forks," he said.

Janatuinen 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.

"It's been a long process. It's been a lot of months. I'm still not completely over it, but I'm getting there and it's a relief."

To this day, Janatuinen still wonders what triggered his fatigue and other symptoms.

"A million thoughts have gone through my head about what could have caused it," he said. "My body didn't react to the surgery very well. It was my first surgery. I don't know if my body was like, 'Whoa, what just happened?' I was pushing pretty hard. You always think hard work will be rewarded, right? That's what I did. I started doing so much extra stuff, because I thought I was just in bad shape.

"I was doing everything. Even when it came to my diet, I cut out everything unhealthy. But I still felt the worst I've ever felt in my life. That was tough."

Was there ever a diagnosis?

"No," he said. "Never."

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."