MINNEAPOLIS -- The city of Cottage Grove, Minnesota, has been home to a miracle on ice the past 15 years.
Josh Karels, 15, is the courageous individual who has become an inspiration not only to teammates and coaches for the Cottage Grove bantam A hockey team, but throughout the "State of Hockey."
Despite being diagnosed with a rare immune deficiency disease called Hypogammaglobulinemia that has gradually consumed the inside of his body, Karels continues to play hockey and use the game as a therapeutic tonic to the pain and despair he faces each day.
"The pain just goes away when I'm with my teammates; I should call them brothers," Karels told NHL.com. "I just don't feel the pain anymore just because I'm so happy playing hockey. I don't even realize that I have any pain."
That's incredible when you consider Karels has had more than 20 different surgeries in the past 10 years, from sinuses to the removal of his entire large intestine and parts of his small intestine, and doctors most recently removed his gallbladder. Because of the disease, Karels' body is seen as foreign by his immune system and little by little is destroying itself.
Catching a cold could threaten his life.
"The hardest thing for me is probably just getting up and moving around; living has gotten harder for me," Karels said. "I feel like I'm breathing out one lung sometimes."
Karels was honored to receive an invitation to serve as the flag bearer at the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). He also had the privilege to meet many legends of the Minnesota North Stars and Wild prior to the 2016 NHL Stadium Series Alumni Game on Saturday.
"It's going to be very cool," Karels said of carrying the flag to center ice. "The Wild are my favorite team and Zach Parise is my favorite player. I like it how he's more of a playmaker, setting up other people to score instead of looking to score himself. That's kind of like me; I set people up to score.
Karels continues to play for his bantam A team, which finished the season 17-3-1. He wears No. 16 because that's the number he's worn since his years as a mite.
Not until his mother, Katie Karels, wrote in detail what her son had endured in a note to several local news outlets in January did anyone realize the pain Josh has been feeling.
"It wasn't until he was 5-years-old that we really noticed something was wrong," Katie Karel wrote. "He had a severe case of pneumonia and an asthma attack and collapsed lung all at once, and at that point the doctors realized something wasn't right so that's when the first diagnosis came out of the immune deficiency."
Josh is grateful his mom and dad, Andy, have been there for him during the tough times.
"They kept me motivated and were always there for me," he said. "They would say, 'You're going to get through this' and 'it will get better'. They just kept motivating me even more to get through it."
Of course, hockey has played a big part of that too.
"Hockey, by far, is what keeps Josh going and has kept him alive this long," Katie Karels said.
Karels' teammates for the Wolfpack call him "Joshie Hockey 16", a name inspired by the "Johnny Hockey" moniker given to Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau. He said he likes the nickname very much. At last check, more than $57,100 had been raised for Karels' care through his GoFundMe.com page.
Karels knows his disease is terminal, but he somehow is able to look on the brighter side of life.
"I guess I don't really think about [myself as a miracle on ice]; I just play the sport I love and if that inspires people, then that's good," Karels said. "Why be down on yourself knowing there are people who have it worse than you; I'm lucky I have such a great family and so many friends."