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Joseph Blandisi struggled to gain his feet during mystery illness

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Unable to stand up because of a lack of balance. Difficulty walking in a straight line and a loss of peripheral vision. Trouble staying awake and walking up a flight of stairs.

These symptoms are more associated with a long night on the town than the day-to-day existence of a hockey player.

Unless your name is Joseph Blandisi, that is.

Two years ago, the 21-year-old New Jersey Devils rookie experienced all of these symptoms and more while playing for the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, and it had nothing to do with having too much fun.

In fact, all that Blandisi's doctors knew at the time was that his mystery ailment was in danger of ending his pro career before it really started.

"I think they gave me mono at first," said Blandisi, who has chipped in five goals and 14 points in his first 26 NHL games after being signed as a free agent by the Devils last winter.

"I started with mono and I was tired all the time. Just slept and watched TV a lot. 'One Tree Hill' and hockey. That's normal for mono and mono's a couple weeks. So that was fine. Then I started feeling a little better and put my skates on, but I couldn't skate. I was like, 'Oh, this is weird.'"

What started as "weird" eventually became scary enough that the then-19-year-old Colorado Avalanche sixth-round draft pick thought his career was over. It would be more than seven months before Blandisi would play competitive hockey again, with doctors still unsure what his illness was.

"I thought I felt fine, but I guess something in my brain was messed up," Blandisi said. "I thought they did something to my skates at first. I got my skates sharpened and went back out there and I still couldn't skate. I was out for three weeks with the mono and when I came back it was like I had never skated in my life.

"It slowly started getting worse. Even driving, I couldn't see out of my peripherals. I couldn't see in my blind spot unless I completely rotated my head. I couldn't balance on one foot. If I was sitting down for long periods of time and I got up, I'd fall over right away. When you'd see me in the dressing room, I'd be swaying.

"One time I came home and I caught my mom unexpected. She was there, just crying. She asked me, 'Are you ever going to get better?'"

For a while, this was a legitimate concern for Blandisi, who with his strange condition confounded doctors and scouts alike for months. It was as if Blandisi became one of the NBA stars whose talent was stolen by cartoon aliens in the movie "Space Jam," with there being few traces of any physical problems in him except that he seemingly lost all of his athletic ability overnight.

"As a coach, I was more worried about his well-being and getting a proper diagnosis," said Dale Hawerchuk, Blandisi's coach in Barrie. "Joe contracted a strange virus."

Blandisi was eventually diagnosed with a coxsackie viral infection, a condition so rare that many doctors aren't exactly sure how to properly diagnose it, let alone treat it.

Dr. Joel Mendelson, a New Jersey allergist-immunologist who specializes in treating rare infections, said coxsackie is caused by a bacteria that produces a cough and a fever that lasts for a few weeks or several months. It usually goes away on its own but can be shortened by antibiotics. He added that there have been relapses, but overall the infection is very rare, with 200 cases a year in the U.S.

"It's typically acquired from animal contact -- farm animals can transmit coxsackievirus," he said. "This is a disease that's not typically transmitted from person to person. The normal story with this is contact with goats, sheep, that kind of contact. It's more of a farming or rural illness."

Considering that Blandisi grew up in suburban Toronto with his father working as a car salesman and his mother for a health and wellness company, it remains unclear how he could have contracted this rare disease. Blandisi, however, completely recovered, without medication, within six months and hasn't experienced any symptoms since.

Perhaps most unexpected is that Blandisi returned from his illness a better player. He previously had never scored more than 21 goals in a junior season, but Blandisi scored 52 with Barrie last season, leading arguably the most competitive junior league in the world in goals.

Blandisi continued his OHL success by speeding through an American Hockey League apprenticeship in Albany this fall, solidifying himself to become a key offensive contributor for a Devils team surprisingly in contention for a playoff spot.

"Going through what he went through has fueled his desire to succeed," Hawerchuk said. "I always liked his skill set and now he took his work ethic to a new level, which provided him with on-ice results."

Blandisi is the quintessential feel-good story, until you actually see him play.

Soft-spoken off the ice, the middle-sized winger is a nasty piece of business on the ice who has earned a reputation as a bit of a diver. First, a slight slash from Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald on Feb. 16 produced a (penalized) dive that would've made Greg Louganis proud. A week later, a light tap in the face from the New York Rangers' Dylan McIlrath produced similar (also penalized) results.

When asked after the latter incident of a scouting report comparing him to Steve Ott of the St. Louis Blues, Blandisi laughed.

"I don't know if I'd go that far," Blandisi said. "Maybe more Brad Marchand."

Oh, that's so much better.

Although, for a player who couldn't stand on his own two feet two years ago, a reputation for occasionally falling down on purpose is quite better.