ST. PAUL, Minn. — When practice ends and the skates are off, Jake Dowell is just like any of his other Minnesota Wild teammates, tired and ready to go home to rest.
Dowell doesn’t always take the chance to relax. When the opportunity arises, Dowell makes a short trip to Menomonie or Eau Claire, Wisc. The burden Dowell carries with him his more than just competing to make Minnesota’s roster or preparing for the next opponent.
Dowell, born in Eau Claire, has been watching his dad and older brother slowly die because of a debilitating neurological disorder, Huntington’s disease, which attacks the brain and impairs physical and cognitive function. Dowell, 28, lives with the uncertainty that he might also carry the same deadly gene.
“It’s terrible,” Dowell said of dealing with the unknown. “It’s something that I wouldn’t want anybody to have to have hanging over their heads. It’s something that is on my mind, but it’s something that I can’t control. So, I have to really just go about my life right now, trying to make the best of everything and trying to be a support for my family. But also do my job and play here for the Wild and be in the NHL, and that’s obviously my goal and my plan.”
Dowell plans to eventually have the test to determine if he also has Huntington’s disease, but he’s withheld from the test over the years. He shows no signs of the disease, which doesn’t usually appear in people until they are in their 30s, but he has a 50-50 chance of inheriting the same gene.
Meanwhile, Dowell focuses on trying to make the Wild roster, while his thoughts can’t help but also be on his family.
“How he deals with it is pretty special,” said Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, who was a college teammate of Dowell with the U.S. Development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. and the University of Wisconsin. “Most guys would feel sorry for themselves and expect to be treated differently. He goes out and works hard. Every day he shows up to work and try to get better. He doesn’t come in here and sulk. He has a positive attitude and that’s what I think is the biggest thing for him.”
With his dad, John, 58, and his brother, Luke, 30, in a care facility in Menomonie, Dowell tries to be a part of the support group, which includes his mom, Vicki, who cared for his dad for years.
“She’s been incredible,” Dowell said. “She’s been the one that’s held everything together. She’s sacrificed years of her life to just be a caregiver for my dad and that’s something is not an easy job and not everybody can do. It’s been inspiring to see her do that.”
Dowell, who’s played 156 NHL games in parts of six seasons, signed with the Wild in the summer of 2012. Dowell is trying to carve out an NHL career, but also felt being closer to home was important.
When he can, Dowell makes his way back home or to Menomonie, which is minutes from Eau Claire.
“It’s tough,” Dowell said of visiting his dad and brother. “They don’t say much. They don’t do much. They can’t really do anything. So, we just kind of sit there and I’ll try to get some questions and little one-word, two-word answers out of them, that’s what I’ll get. Otherwise, it’s just being with them and having them know that I’m there with them and spending time with them. It’s comforting for all of us.”
Dowell’s father was an athlete himself and played college football at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His dad coached Jake growing up before being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease when Jake was a junior in high school.
“Someone that’s used to doing everything they can do and do it with kind of relative ease, it’s tough to rely on everybody to take care of you from now on,” Dowell said. “It’s been a while and it’s just kind of an ongoing deteriorating, degenerative process. It’s been tough watching him slowly digress a little bit and now the point where he’s at, it’s not something where he can possibly get better. “
Dowell’s brother was diagnosed with a rare instance of early onset of the disease. Jake hasn’t shown those signs.
Now married, Dowell said he will have the test before he and his wife, Carly, have any children on their own. If Dowell has the gene, the chance for his children to inherit it is also 50-50.
“I’m not going to bring kids in not knowing if I can take care of it and they can weed that gene out and end it with me if I was the last person,” Dowell said. “If I have it, then I feel like that’s the responsible thing for me to do and then I’ll definitely do that.”
If Dowell does have the gene, he said doctors can eradicate it through his family with in vitro fertilization.
“Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” Dowell said. “I don’t have any reason to believe that I have it right now. How would I know right now? I don’t have any symptoms, but it usually doesn’t come out until later anyways. It’s something I guess we’ll deal with when I have the test.”
Dowell made the Wild’s first roster cuts of the season Tuesday and is one of the final 28 players in training camp vying for 23 roster spots. He played two games with Minnesota last season and 37 with the Wild’s American Hockey League team in Houston. His career best season was 2010-11 with the Chicago Blackhawks when he played 79 games and had six goals and 15 assists.
Dowell has a one-way contract this year, giving him a good chance of sticking closer to home.
“Just to know what he’s going through, it’s hard for any of us to imagine,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “The professionalism that he comes to the rink with every day, the attitude that he brings every day, he’s an easy guy to root for. It’s something that we really couldn’t try to understand or put ourselves in that situation, but can’t be anything but impressed with the way that he handles himself.”
Dowell is using his status as an NHL player to try and raise awareness of the disease and the hope of eventually finding a cure.
“I’m at a little bit bigger stage and have the ability to raise a little bit more awareness on the national level,” Dowell said. “And if I have that opportunity, I feel like it’s my job to be someone that can talk and speak up for it to try to raise awareness and try to get a cure for this.”