Used to big hits and aching bones, pro hockey player Bryan Bickell reassured himself, blaming the pain on a strange sleeping position, a pinched nerve, or perhaps an infected tooth he had at the time.
But it didn’t subside.
“It came back, and it went down my arm,” the 6-foot, 4-inch, 223-pound left winger tells CNN Sport. “Then, after a couple of weeks, it went down into my leg. This was something different.”
Revered by 20,000 fans every time he took the ice, suddenly the three-time Stanley Cup winner was feeling decidedly human.
“The signals I was sending to the right side of my body were off,” Bickell explains. “Something was not right.”
When he moved his stick, “it was not doing what I was telling it to do.” It was as if the skills the former construction worker had honed from the Greater Toronto Hockey League all the way to the NHL had been stripped away.
Even worse was the realization he had to pull himself off the ice.
End of the road?
Then, in November 2016, he got the news.
Bickell, a veteran of nine NHL seasons, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological disease that affects the central nervous system and for which there is no cure.
Ice hockey had been his lifelong dream. He’d relished every moment playing, from the “odd mini-stick games in hotel hallways” to the game-tying goal during Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup final with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It was difficult,” the 31-year-old admits as he remembers contemplating the idea of the curtain falling on his 15-year career. “I didn’t know much about it, but as the days and the weeks went on, you learn more.”
Bickell found himself, against the advice of his doctors, researching his condition on the internet. He prepared himself for vertigo, sustained fatigue, intermittent loss of balance, and potential vision problems.
The initial months were a “roller coaster,” but emboldened by the positivity of his wife Amanda, Bickell resolved not to let his diagnosis define him.
He’d been traded to the Charlotte Hurricanes prior to the 2016 NHL draft as the Chicago Blackhawks sought to shed his sizable salary. It was there Bickell found the resolve to gradually return to the ice.
He built up his strength playing for the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, duly registering a primary assist on February 26, in his first game back.
Staff, including Hurricanes trainer Brian Maddox, couldn’t believe his resilience.
“It’s definitely a disease that would debilitate a lot of people,” says Maddox, jokingly comparing Bickell to a walking “chemistry set” such is his extensive list of medications.
But Bickell took everything in his stride and his “great attitude” shone through.
Off the ice, the big Canadian found psychological escape on Charlotte’s lakes, recently acquiring a fishing boat to bring a little piece of home with him to North Carolina.
Such diversion, Bickell says, has been “a big help in adjusting to dealing with this,” but the support of his Checkers teammates — a “bunch of young guns” — also boosted the stricken star.
“Some guys ask about it, curious,” he tells CNN. “Some are scared to ask me, but I tell them. They’re inspired and truly, I think, believe in me.
“They’ve seen what I’ve been through in my hockey career and they listen.
“It’s something about hockey and the personality that hockey players have,” he says. “We’re a bunch of guys who become brothers. We’d do anything for each other, on and off the ice.”
Fatherhood and NHL dreams
Ulf Samuelsson, head coach of the Checkers, remembers learning of Bickell’s diagnosis.
“You think the player is done,” Samuelsson admits. “The way it affects your brain, how it tells your different body parts things. … That’s why it’s so special.”
Samuelsson, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, paints Bickell as a “big, powerful and skillful player” during his time at the top. The Checkers coach insists that if he didn’t know about Bickell’s condition, he wouldn’t necessarily have noticed any difference.
“The guys around us are amazed, and people see hope,” Samuelsson tells CNN. “The future looks bright for him.”
Bickell wouldn’t have made more than 380 NHL appearances without grit.
“I can visualize it,” the player told CNN, dreaming of a return to his former standing in the world’s premier ice hockey league.
“It would be emotional, having not known if I could play hockey again … It would be special through everything, through all of the people who helped me get to this point on the road I’ve been down.”
Bickell almost always spoke of “when,” not “if,” in discussions about his comeback.
But in the unforgiving world of professional sport, nothing lasts forever.
And, realizing he could never reach the same levels again, Bickell announced he was to retire just four days after his first game back.
On Sunday April 9, Bickell went out on high, scoring in the shootout of his final game as the Hurricanes beat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3.
Teammates wore No. 29 stickers on their helmets for the Hurricanes’ final two regular-season games in his honor, naming Bickell as the winner of the 2016-17 Steve Chiasson Award for his determination and dedication through adversity.
There was no theatrical goodbye for Bickell. Instead, he and his wife Amanda participated in a walk around the Hurricanes’ home ground in aid of MS research, where they were joined by the entire NHL team.
Bickell’s top-tier sporting career may be over now, but at 31 he has his whole life ahead of him.
“I’m always going to be a hockey player, whether it’s coaching my kids or helping out some locals,” he tells CNN. “I’m always going to have hockey in my blood.”