ST. PAUL, Minn. - Just five months after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Bryan Bickell is ready to make his return to the National Hockey League.
When the Carolina Hurricanes take on the Minnesota Wild in game No. 79, Bickell will dress for the first time since Oct. 30, game No. 8.
"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," Bickell said. "I didn't know when this day would come, but I'm happy to be here."
Bickell had been feeling not quite right for some time. There were tests and diagnoses (vertigo and an ocular issue among them), but uneasiness persisted. In early November, Bickell received the news that would change his life moving forward: he had MS, "an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body," according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"That first month wasn't ideal. It wasn't looking good, as far as getting better," Bickell recalled. "We're just happy it got better."
Though there is no cure for MS, there is treatment to help slow the progression of the disease and manage symptoms. Bickell continues to seek out regular medical attention, and the support of his friends and family was equally important during his rehabilitation.
Video: Bryan Bickell discusses his Diagnosis
"Definitely my family helped me get to this moment with the goods and the bads and the rough patches here and there," he said.
Bickell also connected with former Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with MS in the fall of 2012 and returned to the NHL for two seasons.
"To get some words of wisdom from a guy who's been through it definitely helped," Bickell said. "A lot of people reached out through these months knowing this day was going to come, so I'm happy to be here."
Bickell was able to get back on the ice in January and joined the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League in late February. He tallied an assist in his first game and would tack on two more in the three games that followed. Bickell scored a goal on March 25 in Charlotte, and a week-and-a-half later, he has rejoined the Hurricanes.
Video: Bryan Bickell: "It's been a long road"
"It was a little rough, the timing and the physical part was off," he said of his first games back. "With a handful of games left, I'm happy to be where I am now."
It's somewhat fitting that Bickell will make his NHL return in Minnesota, where Harding did the same in 2013. Bickell said he hopes to chat with Harding in-person on Tuesday.
"It's nice to reach out to him and get some thoughts of what he's been through," Bickell said. "Hopefully he can be here tonight. To meet him for the first time would be special."
Having played with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division, Bickell is also familiar with tonight's opponent.
"I've scored a couple goals against these guys in the past," he said with a smile, and it's true - eight goals in 20 games against the Wild. "Hopefully I get one today."
Skating on a line with Brock McGinn and Andrew Poturalski, who will be making his NHL debut, Bickell and his linemates could find a way to bang in a gritty goal. That would be a tale to tell, for sure.
"He's going to be excited. He's going to play hard," head coach Bill Peters said. "He's going to come in and fit right in. … I think it's going to be fun.
"I'm just going to put him out and play [him]."
Just play him. It seems simple, but considering these last five months, it was uncertain if that time would ever come again, determined as Bickell might have been. Now it's here, and he gets the opportunity to once again just play the game he loves.
"It will be special to get this game in and hopefully a couple at home," Bickell said. "We'll see how these games go and take it game-by-game."