Forward Bryan Bickell is expected to play his first game for the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November.
Bickell, 31, was recalled by the Hurricanes from Charlotte of the American Hockey League on Monday and is set to face the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; FS-N, FS-CR, NHL.TV).
"Through all of this, it's been a lot of ups and downs but it's nice to get some games in and play some hockey again," Bickell said.
Bickell last played in an NHL game on Oct. 30 against the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena. He was listed as a healthy scratch for the next three games, and on Nov. 8, after struggling with numbness in his right arm and leg and some dizziness, he pulled himself off the ice during the Hurricanes' morning skate at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Two days later, Bickell learned he had MS, an unpredictable disease that causes the body's immune system to attack its central nervous system and has no cure. It's been a long road back to the NHL, so Bickell anticipates an emotional night for him in Minnesota.
"After getting diagnosed and that first month not knowing if I was ever going to play hockey again, it was tough to do every-day stuff and stuff like that, but to see the progress from where I was to where I am now is definitely special," Bickell said. "It will be nice to feel good and to play, especially in Minnesota because of the Harding thing, too."
Former Wild goaltender Josh Harding was diagnosed with MS in 2012 and was able to resume his career in 2012-13 before he stopped playing following the 2013-14 season on advice of his doctors. Harding, a high school goaltending instructor in Edina, Minnesota, has been a valuable resource for Bickel since he was diagnosed, offering first-hand advice from his experience.
Bickell said he planned to contact Harding on Monday and hopes he'll be able to attend the game Tuesday. Bickell said his wife Amanda and their daughters, Makayla, 2, and Kinslee, 9 months, probably won't be able to make it to Minnesota for the game, but they'll be at PNC Arena when the Hurricanes host the New York Islanders on Thursday and the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
The Hurricanes play their final regular-season game at the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
"I know for a lot of family and friends it will be tough to be [in Minnesota], but just to see me back on the ice on the NHL level will be special enough," Bickell said.
The turning point for Bickell came in early December, when he began receiving monthly injections of Tysabri, a drug that helps limit the debilitating effects of MS. He felt well enough to resume skating in early January and, after practicing with the Hurricanes for about a month, was assigned to Charlotte of the American Hockey League on Feb. 24 to get back into playing shape.
An injury -- "I got hit into an open [bench] door and I was bleeding in my butt muscle" -- kept Bickell out of the lineup for two weeks, but he returned on March 25 against the Chicago Wolves and scored a goal in a 3-2 shootout victory. A team-record 13-game point streak (9-0-4) that put the Hurricanes back into contention for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs also might have delayed Bickell's return.
The Hurricanes have not been mathematically eliminated, but, after losses in their past two games, are seven points out of a playoff spot with four games to go.
"They were the hottest team in the League for about two or three weeks," Bickell said. "But I'll definitely be excited to get back and hopefully just finish there."
Bickell had one goal and three assists in 10 games with Charlotte. By coincidence, Bickell was in Chicago with the Checkers, following a 5-3 loss to the Wolves on Sunday, when he got the news he was being called up.
He was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round (No. 41) of the 2004 NHL Draft and won the Stanley Cup with them in 2010, 2013 and 2015 before being traded to the Hurricanes on June 15, 2016. Bickell was to fly back to Charlotte with the Checkers to pick up his belongings on Monday before driving to Raleigh and flying to Minnesota.
He said Amanda, who has remained in Raleigh with his daughters while he's been playing with Charlotte, was thrilled when they told her he was headed back to the NHL.
"She's been a single mom at home with two kids," he said. "It's been tough on her and tough on me not being at home and seeing my girls and things like that. It's something special for these remaining games to be with them and after the hard times that we've been through this year to get back."
Bickell, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, doesn't know if these final four games of the regular season with the Hurricanes will be his last in the NHL. Although the Tysabri helps, he said its impact "kind of fades" as the month between treatments progresses.
So now that he's back in the NHL, he plans to "cherish every game as if it was my last and to have fun.
"I'm just taking it day by day and worrying about my health more than anything, and my family," Bickell said. "Hockey has been my life for my [entire] life. So you think about your health and things like that in this circumstance, to have a good life. I'm only 31. I'm still young. I hope there's more, but that's an unknown."