AJ Degenhardt was back in a space where he’s spent countless hours: a hockey bench.
As a player and a longtime coach, the La Crosse native is used to the sightlines behind the boards. While they weren’t the same benches he hopped off and on to during his college playing days at the University of Wisconsin — which included winning the national championship as a senior in 2006 — Degenhardt was on the bench at Madison’s LaBahn Arena for the Blake Geoffrion Hockey Classic last month.
At one time in his life, Degenhardt, 34, would’ve been suited up and ready for his line’s shift to come up. At another, he would’ve been dressed in a sharp suit, watching the action unfold while giving out instructions. Those were his environments.
The wheelchair he was forced to use two weekends ago just didn’t feel right.
Degenhardt, the former coach and general manager of the Coulee Region Chill, is battling multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system in which the body’s immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves. Degenhardt was diagnosed six years ago while he was coaching in the Team Illinois program.
He returned to La Crosse in 2013 to take over the Chill. While some days were better than others physically for him, he led Coulee Region to two NAHL playoff berths in his three years as coach, including a memorable stretch in his last season in which the team went 23-9-1 in the second half of the year to rally from a rough start to make the playoffs.
After that 2015-16 season, Degenhardt took a coaching and front office position with Team Illinois, taking over the 16U program. His health started to to take a downturn while coaching this season and he was unable to be on the ice for practices.
The physical symptoms of his MS are varied and numerous. The limp on his left leg has gotten worse, and moving around has gotten to be more of a challenge. The right side of his body is numb, which only furthered the difficulty of walking. The feeling in his fingers is mostly gone. His doctors have altered his diagnosis from relapsing-remitting MS to progressive MS — in essence, a more aggressive form of the incurable disease.
“Lately has been the biggest challenge since I was diagnosed,” Degenhardt said.
The body ailments are one thing. But Degenhardt said the steeper hill to climb is the mental adversity that accompanies MS.
“It plays mind games with you,” he said. “I would go a month or two months without any symptoms and almost forget that I had it, and then something bad would happen. And you don’t know if (new symptoms are) going to go away and get better or not.”
Degenhardt was honored at the Blake Geoffrion Hockey Classic, and the annual fundraiser was dedicated to helping defray Degenhardt’s medical costs. A group of Badgers hockey alumni set up a GoFundMe campaign to continue that effort.
The generosity of those gathered in Madison this month — former teammates and coaches, alumni and others — struck Degenhardt.
“It’s an isolating disease. I kind of closed myself off at times,” he said. “To see them do all of that and put that on for me … it’s overwhelming to see how big people’s hearts are. It’s overwhelming in a good way.”
Messages from those people he hasn’t seen in some time have been equally impactful. GoFundMe allows donors to leave comments on the campaign’s page, and Degenhardt’s nearly 250 contributors have left notes of prayer and well wishes, along with memories of the impression Degenhardt has made on them.
“AJ worked with my son, Chad, during summer hockey camps. Chad said he really enjoyed AJ’s enthusiasm and how well he worked with all the kids,” Rita Davis wrote.
“Thank you Coach Degenhardt for a memorable first year of junior hockey. I’ll never forget the skate after the Austin game!! Stay strong coach,” wrote Charlie Parker, who played for Coulee Region under Degenhardt in the 2014-15 season.
Throughout his coaching career, Degenhardt maintained the most fulfilling moments came when players he had in years prior would call or text to ask a question or just reconnect. The messages on the campaign page bring on those feelings tenfold.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that board and cried to myself,” he said. “It brings a light to what you did. It kind of puts a stamp on what you meant and that they thought of you as someone to reach out to.
“It really makes you realize the impact you had.”
When his health issues worsened this year, Degenhardt made the decision to step down from his job at Team Illinois. But the organization, based in Lake Zurich, Ill., simply wouldn’t let him — they wanted him to stay involved in whatever capacity he could.
“It was difficult for us to hear because even with the issues, everybody’s hope was he could keep coaching,” said Larry Pedrie, the hockey director for Team Illinois. “When that wasn’t the case, our game became keeping him employed with us. Aside from his hockey expertise, he’s a wonderful guy to be around, and when you find good people you have to keep them.”
Degenhardt is back in La Crosse and is working as Team Illinois’ website and video manager, something Pedrie said will continue as long as Degenhardt’s able.
“I can’t say enough about Team Illinois. The support that they’ve shown me in the time I’ve been there. This is nothing they had to do,” Degenhardt said. “I was going in to resign and instead they create a position for me where I can work from home.”
Many messages on the GoFundMe wall make reference to Degenhardt’s tenacity as a hockey player. He’s shown the same grit in his fight against MS.
Perhaps one day Degenhardt will be able to be back on the hockey bench, sharing his passion for the sport that has been a major part of his life.
After all, he’s a living example of how to battle an imposing foe.
“It plays mind games with you. I would go a month or two months without any symptoms and almost forget that I had it, and then something bad would happen.” AJ Degenhardt, on battling MS