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Bickell's Emotional and Inspirational Final Chapter

Bickell scored a shootout goal in the final game of his career

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

Bryan Bickell sat down in his stall at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to unlace his skates, first the right and then the left, for the final time in his career.

By his side was the Carolina Hurricanes' "chop wood, carry water" postgame award, a wrestling-style championship belt and an ax, that is passed along after each victory to the player who best demonstrates hard work and commitment to the process.

Bickell - in his final game in the National Hockey League, in an emotional week with the Hurricanes and in his ongoing fight against multiple sclerosis - personifies just that.

"We all know who this should be going to," Noah Hanifin said, as he addressed the locker room after the Hurricanes' 4-3 shootout win over the Flyers on Sunday. "Bicks, it was awesome having you as a teammate this year. You're a great role model for all of us."

Tweet from @NHLCanes: "Bicks, it was awesome having you as a teammate this year. You're a great role model for all of us."���@NHanifin to @bbicks29#BickellBrave pic.twitter.com/2xbtW8tjHw

This past week, the Canes' final stretch in their 2016-17 regular season, was a week that began with Bickell's return to the NHL and a week that ended with one last game and one last goal.

It was an emotional week. It was an inspiring week. It was a week and a career that will not soon be forgotten.

"I think I sweat all the tears out, so I don't know if I have much left," Bickell said after his final game. "Seeing my family here and all the people who supported me through it all, I'm just happy."

Bickell, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in early November after last playing in the NHL on Oct. 30, returned to the Hurricanes' lineup on April 4 in Minnesota.

"With the circumstances and the rough road that me and my family went through, to get this opportunity with some games left is definitely a blessing," he said before the game. "I didn't know when this day would come, but I'm happy to be here."

"To know how hard he's worked and see him every day pretty quickly after his diagnosis, he was right back beginning doing basic exercises and body weight stuff. I don't say this lightly: it was an inspiration to see how much he cares and how hard he worked," Lee Stempniak said. "Hockey is such an important part of our lives. I don't want to say you take it for granted, but I think you always think it's going to be there. To have it taken away like that is certainly difficult. It's a bit of a reality check for all of us. He's put in the work and had a great attitude. He's just been a great person in general, a great person to get to know. Just really happy for him to be back."

As it turned out, though, the Hurricanes' last four games of the season would be his curtain call. Retirement from the game he loved was something Bickell said he thought about in the five months between NHL games. The return was a huge step, he said, but he was never going to feel the same, not after the diagnosis.

"The biggest thing is my health. I don't want to take risks," he said. "Obviously I've played hockey for my life, and it's tough to leave. There's a life after hockey, and to be healthy and watch my kids grow will be important."

Tweet from @NHLCanes: Taking it all in one last time.#BickellBrave #CARvsPHI pic.twitter.com/kbjIG2Xoz2

The final decision to hang up the skates at the conclusion of the season was made in the last week after discussions with his wife and his parents.

"Hockey is not everything. I've got a life after hockey. To live a healthy life for the rest of my life is important for me and my family," he said. "We made the decision to [retire], and I won't take any regrets. I've had a pretty good career and made the best of it."

The 31-year-old did indeed make the best of it, being a part of three Stanley Cup winning teams with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013 and 2015). He would finish with 395 NHL games, 66 goals and 70 assists to his name, in addition to another 75 games played, 20 goals and 19 assists in six postseason appearances.

"Those memories are always going to be there. Growing up with the dream to one day win and then getting the opportunity a couple of times … it brings a lot of good memories," he said. "I'm going to have those for the rest of my life."

"Heck of a career for that guy. I remember watching him [win the Stanley Cup]. He's had a great career. He's a great player and a great teammate," Jeff Skinner said. "You go through a career, meet a lot of guys and teammates and everyone's got a lot of different stories. What he's gone through this year … the emotion, the toughness, a lot of adjectives I can't really come up with. He's a great guy."

Tweet from @bbicks29: Thanks to @NHLCanes @NHLBlackhawks for letting a kid from Orono Ont live this hockey dreams and 2 all the people that helped me get there.

Bickell was raw and candid and wore his heart on his sleeve as his final game crept closer.

"It's been really emotional. I had some times breaking down, but that's part of who I am and just the passion behind this," he said. "This is what I've done my whole life, and it's going to be tough to let it go. But obviously there are situations that get thrown at you and lead you different ways. We're happy to have the career and what I've done in my time, but there's going to be a new chapter in my life, and I'm looking forward to that as well."

Head coach Bill Peters, too, had to fight through the tears to offer his thought on a player he coached when he was breaking in to the league through Rockford of the American League and now again in Carolina at the end of his career.

"You guys have got to meet him and know him, so you know what he's all about. He's a guy's guy. He's handled it as good as you can," Peters said on Saturday. "He's a man's man, a pro's pro, and he's unbelievably brave."

All the while, the love and outpouring of support from not only the Hurricanes, their fans and the community but also the entire league was unmatched.

On Saturday morning, the Hurricanes - his teammates, coaching staff, trainers, equipment managers and hockey staff - surprised Bickell and his family at Walk MS: Triangle, as they walked together in solidarity.

Video: The Hurricanes surprise and join Bickell in Walk MS

Later that day, Bickell was named the Steve Chiasson Award winner by his teammates, an award "given annually to the Hurricanes player that best exemplifies determination and dedication while proving to be an inspiration to his teammates through his performance and approach to the game." That night in the 2016-17 home finale, each player wore Bickell's No. 29 on the backs of their helmets and Bickell was honored for the Chiasson award and his championship career. As both teams, officials and fans paid their respects with stick taps, a standing ovation and chants of "Thank you, Bickell," he took an encore twirl on the ice in appreciation.

Video: Hurricanes fans show their support for Bickell

"The Bryan Bickell chant after was cool," Jeff Skinner said. "It gives you goosebumps."

It would all then come to an end 24 hours later in Philadelphia, one last chance for Bickell to skate off into the sunset with a win and a good feeling.

It was seven hours prior to the final opening faceoff of his career. A power-play meeting had just wrapped up on the third floor of the team hotel in downtown Philadelphia, and lunch was being served. Bickell said it didn't feel much different from any of his other 394 regular-season gamedays.

"I'll take it all in and enjoy it," he said. "Through the years you look back on the memories and the people who helped you reach your ultimate goal. I can look back to that today, thank them and cherish it."

Bickell would have around 20 people in the Wells Fargo Center stands, "close friends and family who have helped me through this year and my career. It will be a special day for them to be here and enjoy this last game," he said.

That evening, as was planned, Bickell was among the Hurricanes' starting five players. During the first timeout of the opening period, the Flyers honored Bickell's career, and the Philadelphia fans responded with a standing ovation. Just as he did the night before, Bickell skated a little lap around the neutral zone, waving in appreciation to the fans.

Tweet from @MSmithCanes: #Flyers honor #Canes forward Bryan Bickell in his final @NHL game. #BickellBrave pic.twitter.com/PHorzy6Xje

"Our guys have a lot of respect for Bicks. What a great, classy organization and move by the Philadelphia Flyers to do that," Peters said. "A lot of respect amongst the hockey community for Bryan Bickell and the fight he's fighting and going to continue to fight. Our guys rallied around him once he got called up."

Flashback to Saturday night. A shootout was required to settle the score between the Blues and Hurricanes, and St. Louis left town with the extra point in a 5-4 decision. After the game, Peters kicked himself for not utilizing Bickell as one of the shooters and apologized to him in the parking lot. "It's OK, coach. I understand," pushed back the guy who had one career shootout attempt to his name. Peters persisted, though, and insisted that Bickell would shoot should the situation present itself in the final game of the season.

And, as fate would have it, that's exactly what happened.

"We got a second opportunity and made it right," Peters said.

"I think the hockey gods stepped up there and gave me the opportunity," Bickell said.

Bickell hopped over the boards as the Canes' first shooter. He looked down the ice and offered a hint of a smile before gaining speed and picking up the puck at center ice. 

It wouldn't officially appear on the scoresheet, but Bickell made the final shot of his NHL career count.

Bickell skated in and fired off a quick wrist shot from in between the circles. The puck took a loud ping off the inside of the post and found the twine behind Anthony Stolarz, Bickell's first-career shootout goal that would help the team to a 4-3 shootout victory.

Video: CAR@PHI: Bickell tallies SO goal in his final game

"It's just the way it's supposed to go, right?" Peters said. ""He's got a great shot, you know that. This guy can shoot a puck."

"It doesn't surprise me. He's been doing that to me for weeks in practice, so I was just like, yeah, he's got this," Eddie Lack joked.

Bickell gave a quick fist pump while his smiling teammates jumped up and down, hugged one another and nearly leapt over the boards in celebration. A handful of Flyers fist bumped Bickell as he skated by their bench, and when he reached the Canes' bench, he was mobbed by a sea of elated teammates.

"It does kind of feel good when you really think of it," Bickell said of scoring on his last shot. "I was just happy to see that one go in."

"It was awesome. You never forget it," Peters said. "I'll never forget the goal. I'll never forget the reaction of his teammates. I'll never forget the emotion he had."

When Brock McGinn pumped home the game-deciding goal in the shootout, Bickell skated out onto the ice and was surrounded in a team celebratory embrace. He was the last Hurricanes player on the ice and gave a wave to the crowd as he skated off one final time.

Tweet from @bbicks29: Thanks @NHLCanes @NHLFlyers for a game that I will never forget.

It was as perfect of an ending as you could have possibly imagined.

"The first time I lifted the Cup was in Philly, and to end it here is nice," Bickell said. "You think of all the memories, support and people that helped to this moment, it kind of all rushes in at once. I'm just happy to have them to support me and believe me to do what I love."

Of Bickell's nine seasons and 395 games in the NHL, just one season and 11 games came as a member of the Hurricanes. But in that short amount of time, his impact has been immeasurable.

Through his courage and perseverance, Bickell is leaving behind indelible marks on his teammates, on the franchise and on the community.

Bickell brave.

"A really, really great career," Lack said. "He was probably the best teammate I've ever played with, just the presence he has in the locker room and the positivity he brings."

"The Caniacs have definitely supported me through this hard moment in my life and my career. With Ron [Francis], [Bill] Peters, the coaching staff and everybody, the Canes have supported me through this. It's really special," Bickell said. "The support I've had through everybody and the passion they showed in wanting to get me back, I'm really thankful to have them. I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life."

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