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Bickell Returns to NHL After MS Diagnosis

Veteran forward logged three hits in 12:35 of ice time in first game back

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes /

One minute and 59 seconds into Tuesday's game in Minnesota, Bryan Bickell hopped over the boards and onto the ice.

That would be a typical descriptor of a typical game activity on any other night. But this night was certainly not typical. This night was special. This night was the culmination of a long and challenging road, a destination reached with belief, hard work and the assistance and support of a cast of many.

On Tuesday, Bickell returned to National Hockey League game action with the Hurricanes for the first time since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in early November.

"You just think about all the thoughts and things you've gone through to get to this moment, and the people that reached out and helped with support," Bickell said after the game. "It means a lot for all those people to get me to where I am now."

On his third shift of the game, Bickell recorded a hit on defenseman Christian Folin.

"Got back out there, got the feel and a couple of bumps," Bickell said. "It was a little rough start, but mostly it was good to get back out there."

Bickell skated in 12:35 of ice time and was tied for the game lead in hits with three.

"I thought he was good. He moved well and skated well. He made some good plays," Jeff Skinner said. "That's a good story. It shows perseverance and mental toughness and everything. It's inspiring."

Statistics, though, were secondary to the simple fact that he was back on the ice. He had last played for the Hurricanes on Oct. 30 against Philadelphia. That was the team's eighth game of the season. But Bickell didn't feel right, and he hadn't for some time. Vertigo morphed into an ocular issue, but he could tell he was still off. Bickell was diagnosed with MS in November.

"That first month wasn't ideal. It wasn't looking good, as far as getting better," Bickell recalled before the game. "We're just happy it got better."

The diagnosis thrust his hockey career into uncertainty. His health was his first concern, obviously, but Bickell was committed to returning to the ice.

"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," Lee Stempniak said. "I don't say this lightly: it was an inspiration to see how much he cares and how hard he worked."

Bickell began practicing with the Hurricanes again in January. He joined the Charlotte Checkers in late February, an extended conditioning stint of sorts in order to regain his timing and feel of the game. He recorded an assist in his first game with the Checkers and three in his first four. He scored a goal in late March.

On Monday, the Hurricanes recalled Bickell, and his return to the NHL was imminent.

"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 after the morning skate. "I didn't know when this day would come, but I'm happy to be here."

After his first game back, Bickell spoke with the media outside the Hurricanes locker room while Josh Harding, a former Minnesota Wild goaltender who was diagnosed with MS in 2012, lurked around the corner. Bickell and Harding have been in contact since Bickell's diagnosis.

"I haven't met him before. I scored against him a couple of times, and I'm sure he'll remember those," Bickell joked. "It will be good to catch up."

Tuesday night's game was months in the making, a comeback story that is hopefully just beginning.

"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," Stempniak said. "He's just been a great person in general, a great person to get to know. Just really happy for him to be back."

"I'm happy to be back here," Bickell said. "I'll just take it game by game and move on to the next one."

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