Gabe Bortscheller’s hockey passion stays strong despite heart problem


Mikinna Kerns/Iowa State Daily

Then-sophomore Gabe Bortscheller skates backward down the ice during the Cardinal and Gold Team Scrimmage on Sept. 15, 2017. Bortscheller, now a senior, had to give up hockey due to a medical heart condition.

Zach Martin

June 14, 2019, is a day Gabe Bortscheller remembers like it was yesterday.

He was riding his dirt bike with his brother in Maquoketa, Iowa. It was a sunny, vacation-like day for the native of Dubuque, Iowa. This day was a happy one for the Iowa State Division II hockey player, having just gotten done with a full day of work.

Little did he know it would be the day his life changed forever.

After about an hour on his dirt bike, the senior felt his heart rate stay steady at a rapid pace — 120 beats per minute — rather than slow down.

He took deep breathes and tried to eat and drink. He threw up and his heart rate continued to be fast. He couldn’t lift his arms. His eyes kept blacking in and out.

Eventually, his brother got concerned.

“I kept trying to have good spirits and not have anyone worry about me,” Bortscheller said. “He asked me ‘Are you really okay? Like, I need to know’ and I said ‘No, we have to go right now.'”

When Bortscheller made it to the emergency room at a local hospital in Dubuque, seven nurses surrounded him within one minute. Bortscheller said that’s when he knew something was wrong.

Bortscheller was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), which ended his hockey and playing career for the Cyclones.

ARVC is a rare type of cardiomyopathy that affects the right ventricle when the muscle tissue is replaced by scar tissue. According to a website titled Genetics Home Reference, it is diagnosed from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 1,250 people. With no or mild symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose and detect.

“I had no idea what it was, in the moment,” Bortscheller said. “I didn’t really process it. It was an emotional moment. Knowing I couldn’t play hockey and competing with my brothers on the ice, it’s still hard to this day.”

After he was diagnosed that Friday night, he was sent to the University of Iowa hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, over the weekend. He was shocked and immediately thought about how he was going to get better, step-by-step.

“It took all of that week that I was at the hospital to digest it and take it all in,” Bortscheller said.

One of his first calls afterward went to Iowa State hockey head coach Jason Fairman.

“I was in shock at first,” Fairman said. “It sounds like a cliche, the more I thought about it, the more it hit me. It was hard. I started thinking about Gabe and how his life was changing.”

Hockey has been the sport Bortscheller grew up around, and his two older brothers, Jake and Brett, taught him the game. He first held a hockey stick at five years old.

He played in high school for a team in the Midwest High School Hockey League and in a handful of games for a juniors team in Wisconsin called the Wisconsin Whalers.

Bortscheller was a walk-on for Cyclone Hockey and has been on the D2 squad since his freshman year. He played in the National Championship game a season ago against Minot State.

Fairman stated he was going to be the captain of the D2 team this year.

“He’d do anything for his teammates, he played defense, last year he moved up to forward,” Fairman said.

All of this was taken away from Bortscheller on that fateful Friday.

He didn’t want to accept his playing career was over. He described himself as very active and wanting to continue living a normal life, so he resented the doctors’ advice post-surgery to relax and take it easy.

“I went back to my normal self as fast as I possibly could,” Bortscheller said. “That’s all I’ve ever known, I didn’t want to just sit there and not do anything. After about a week out, I did normal things again. I felt invincible; nothing could bring me down. That was my mindset after the surgery. This diagnosis isn’t going to stop me from living my life.”

It turned into a lesson learned the hard way.

Bortscheller got an infection and is now replacing defibrillators. After a conversation with his parents, he agreed he’d step back from an active lifestyle and take care of his body.

He admitted it wasn’t easy.

“I push the limits to what I should and should not do,” Bortscheller said. “Everyday you’ve got to realize you’re not the same person. Once I got the infection and it was due to my stubbornness, that’s when I took it all in.”

Fairman, who kept Bortscheller’s roster spot, looked at the situation in a context relating to his own life.

“Days later, after I processed it, I started thinking about myself and family — all this can be taken away from you at any time,” Fairman said.

While Bortscheller can’t play hockey, he is still around the game and his teammates. He serves as a leader who, as teammate Nikita Kozak said, leads by experience.

Kozak believes Bortscheller has been a tremendous asset to a young team.

“Gabe has done a phenomenal job,” Kozak said. “The gentlemen feel more comfortable approaching him. One that you can personally connect with helps a lot.”

Fairman agrees.

“I’ve seen that first-hand,” Fairman said. “If I’m hard on [the team], a lot of the young guys might take that the wrong way and not know there’s a reason for this, especially at the beginning of the year. [Bortscheller] may go in and temper that — he’s doing a great job supporting the message coming from the coaching staff.”

Hockey isn’t in the immediate future for Bortscheller. He is on track to graduate in May of next year with a degree in business management and is hopeful for a job right after graduation. He’s not closing the book on a possible coaching career or being a donor to a team, club or hockey organization.

“It’s hard to get rid of it so quick; hopefully I’ll still be around hockey,” Bortscheller said. “I’ll always be a supporter of hockey no matter the situation I’m in. If I ever have kids in the future, I’d love to coach them.”

Kozak thinks if his long-term friend time decides to enter into the coaching ranks, he’d be a natural.

“Gabe is very aware and he knows when to say the right things, he knows when to speak up,” Kozak said.

Bortscheller’s view on life has changed since that day nearly four months ago. He said he’s excited for a new chapter in life, one he hopes is a healthy one.

“It really puts things into perspective,” Bortscheller said. “I felt I could do anything as an athlete. That one single day out there riding, enjoying life, the next day you’re in a hospital getting shipped off to Iowa City because you almost died. When you’re in a normal routine and you have perfect health and you’re going to one of the best colleges in the country, everything seems to be right there at your fingertips. When you are told you’re extremely lucky to be alive, everything comes full circle. I’m so lucky to be here.”