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Former Devil Mitch Wilson battling ALS

Friday, 08.22.2014 / 3:12 PM ET / News
By Mike G. Morreale  - NHL.com Staff Writer
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Former Devil Mitch Wilson battling ALS
Wilson skated for the Devils in 1984-85.
It was late Oct. 2013 when former NHL player Mitch Wilson began experiencing something unusual in his right arm during a long journey home from Hawaii along the Pacific.

Since retiring from hockey in 1995, Wilson had been enjoying life on the high seas the past 20 years as a tugboat captain.

"For some reason, the ocean was always a calming influence for me; it was therapeutic," he said.

But during that trip, Wilson's arm began to twitch, and his right hand starting cramping and losing strength. He had blood drawn and went through a series of tests but not until he saw a neurologist some five months later did he receive the unsettling news.

"The neurologist said that while I didn't show all the symptoms, he thought I might have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)," he said.

Wilson was immediately advised to go to the Neuroscience Institute at Virginia Mason in Seattle. There he was given four magnetic resonance imaging tests that took three hours to complete. His doctor at the institute couldn't believe how healthy and in shape he was considering his former line of work (hockey) and current (tugboat captain), and told him he would provide the test results when completed.

"On July 17, the doctor told me I had four years to live," Wilson said.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "In October, I'm feeling perfectly normal and eight months later I'm being told I have four years left. I thought that might be the short-range forecast, but I since learned that's about average."

So after grinding it out to earn every inch of space on the ice and then the ocean for so many years, Wilson now finds himself in a battle against time and a dreaded disease that has no cure. On top of that, he lost his fiancé Collete while she was working on a commercial fishing boat back in January. That added to an already stressful period of his life.

"I didn't tell my mom that I had ALS until just recently; she was the last one in the family I told," Wilson said. "It's hard to tell mom and dad. It's tough news to break."

Wilson, a 52-year-old Calgary native, refuses to give in. In fact, he's determined to raise money in the fight against ALS.

"We've made a lot of progress in the cancer research world, but I would like to see them come up with something that could help ALS patients," Wilson said. "I can't believe that in this day and age, we can't find something.

"Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in 1939 and here we are today, still searching for something."

What has been most difficult for him?

"I'm not a tall guy but I've always been pretty strong at 5-foot-8, 220 pounds and liked physical activity," Wilson said. "I'm down to 200 now and I've lost a lot of muscle and that's been tough."

Wilson, who spent some time in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils in 1984-85 and Pittsburgh Penguins in 1986-87, went public with his disease Aug. 14 in an effort to help raise money and even more awareness at a time when the fight against ALS is at an all-time high.

The proceeds generated by the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social-media fundraiser for ALS, helped raise $41.8 million in donations from July 29-August 21 for The ALS Association (www.alsa.org).

"This is about trying to help others down the road; it's tough to hear 'four years left,'" Wilson said. "If you hear 10 or 12 years, at least you could go 'OK.' But to get that short notice … I'm on disability now so it's a big change in my lifestyle.

"I've driven the inside passage up to Alaska over 100 times in my tugboat, looking up at beautiful landscapes, and it's something I really miss right now."

With the help of his good friend and former Tampa Bay Lighting head scout, Jake Goertzen, Wilson created a Facebook page and GoFundMe account in an effort to raise money to assist in his future care. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to ALS research.

"Down the road, if we can make it so someone doesn't have to go through what I'm going through, I think that would be awesome," Wilson said.

With Wilson playing a part in spreading the word, there's certainly hope. After all, he never thought he'd reach the NHL but did it as a member of the Devils and Penguins during his 13-year hockey career.

"I remember lining up opposite Clark Gillies [of the New York Islanders] in my first NHL game with the Devils and not knowing whether to call him 'Mr. Gillies' or 'Sir'," Wilson said. "I played alongside Mario Lemieux a few times in Pittsburgh and that was something special."

He won a Calder Cup with the Maine Mariners in 1983-84, and Turner Cup with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 1988-89. He holds the record for most penalty minutes in a season with 436 as a member of the Seattle Breakers of the Western Hockey League in 1981-82.

"Hey, I also scored the winning goal in the Calder Cup final for Maine," he said with a chuckle. "I didn't score that many so I better let you know that and give myself some credit."

Wilson deserves more credit than he'll ever know.

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