SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Two days after hoisting the 2013 Stanley Cup with his Chicago Blackhawks teammates, Bryan Bickell picked up a hockey bag full of his equipment and a tendon snapped in his left thumb.
"I guess it was hanging by a thread," Bickell said on Thursday, after taking the ice for the first day of Chicago's training camp at Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena. "It just popped and I had to get surgery."
Bickell, whose great run in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs earned him a four-year contract extension worth a reported $4 million a year, got slashed on the hand in a previous round. It swelled up near the thumb and a cyst formed, which blocked blood flow to the tendon and caused it to disintegrate.
Bickell didn't know that at the time. He kept grinding away in his newfound role -- left wing on the top line with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- and wound up scoring the game-tying goal of Game 6 against the Boston Bruins with just 1:16 left in the third period.
Seventeen seconds later, Dave Bolland scored what turned out to be the series-clinching goal and Bickell couldn't stop smiling. Looking back on what happened two days afterward, when the tendon gave way, the smile on his face now is from relief.
"I was happy it happened then and not a week earlier," Bickell said. "I guess it was meant to be."
It sure seems like it now. The Blackhawks are closing the book on their second Stanley Cup victory in the past four seasons and preparing to start a new one, only with Bickell as a main character. The past four seasons -- prior to the 2013 playoffs, anyway -- Bickell settled mainly into a role on the third line.
He got some brief looks as a top-six forward, but never really showed enough consistently to stay there. Then last season's playoffs happened and Bickell, on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent, looked like a new player.
He started throwing his 6-foot-4, 233-pound body around more often and hounded the opposing net. He used his heavy wrist shot more and became more assertive in all facets of the game. Bickell also showed toughness by playing through a Grade 2 MCL tear in the Cup Final, after injuring it in the series-clinching Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.
"I think he just found it," said center Andrew Shaw, who played between Bickell and former Blackhawks forward Viktor Stalberg on the third line most of last season. "He's that hard-working guy that's going to go to the net and finish every check. We're all happy for him, as well. He's worked for everything he's gotten."
He'll need to keep working too.
"Bicks played great in playoffs," Kane said. "He's one of the key parts of our lineup now and I think he's got to know that going into this season and realize that he's not counted on to be a third-line player or checking-line guy. He's got to do what he did in the playoffs. That's what's expected from him now."
Kane was only stating what the Blackhawks want from their 27-year old power forward after seeing the kind of production Bickell gave them in those 23 playoff games. After scoring nine goals and adding 14 assists in the 48-game regular season, Bickell tallied nine goals and eight assists in half as many playoff games.
"You look over the last three or four years [and he's] been OK in games, in stretches … and consistency is something we look for," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought he showed us that in the playoffs and got rewarded this summer. If he can continue on that type of pattern, where [he shows] that type of predictability, that's Bryan Bickell's game. That's who we're looking for and expecting. That's a different level that we saw, but we certainly saw it in the playoffs."
It looks like Bickell will probably start the season on that line with Toews and Kane, where he skated Thursday for the first day of on-ice work. There will be added pressure and scrutiny, but he sounds ready for it.
"I feel happy to be back here with the contract I have," Bickell said. "I'm just looking for the challenge. I know there's going to be some bumpy spots down the road, but I've just got to stick with it and hopefully everything will work out."
At the very least, Bickell knows he's got the ability to play with stars in a top-six role because he did it on the biggest stage in hockey. It's just a matter of playing now like he did then.
"I didn't change my game when I played with those guys," he said of Toews and Kane. "I had to be big and physical, and I think that helped them out and it helped me out. I had fun."
Kind of like it was meant to be.