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Bryan Bickell staying busy in fight against multiple sclerosis

Retired forward dedicated to helping others afflicted with disease that ended his NHL career

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- In his past life, former NHL forward Bryan Bickell already would have begun preparing for next season by now. Unless, of course, it was one of three times he won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, in which case he'd still be busy wrapping up the season.

But more than two months after playing his final NHL game, Bickell has moved on to his next life. That brought him to New York on Thursday for a blitz of media interviews to share his story about living with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

After that, he was scheduled to fly to Toronto to speak at an MS fundraising event there Thursday evening.

"With this falling in my lap, I've been encouraged to do it more," Bickell said. "I think I was a guy who always did charity events and helped out in any way in different things. This just brings more things for me to do."

In addition to having more time to spend with his wife, Amanda, and their two young daughters, Bickell views his retirement at age 31 as an opportunity to help educate others about MS, a disease of the central nervous system that he was diagnosed with Nov. 10 when he was playing for the Carolina Hurricanes.

His goal?

"A cure," he said. "And for me, and more than 2 million people in the world [with MS], to help in any way. … I'm working with Biogen to spread the word and my story and hopefully inspire a lot of other people."

Biogen is the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Tysabri, the medication Bickell has been taking once a month since December to treat his MS. Before Bickell was diagnosed, he had been experiencing symptoms for a year and a half, including dizziness that initially was thought to be an ocular issue.

After beginning the season with the Hurricanes, pain in his shoulder developed into numbness in his right arm and leg along with some dizziness. That led to a series of tests and the life-changing diagnosis that he has MS.

At that point Bickell didn't know if he'd lose his ability to walk, let alone play hockey. But after he started taking Tysabri he began to feel better and resumed skating in January.

Bickell was cleared medically in late February and played in 10 games with Charlotte of the American Hockey League before being called up to play against the Minnesota Wild on April 4. It was his first NHL game since Oct. 30 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Bickell played in the Hurricanes' last four regular-season games but announced before their home finale against the St. Louis Blues on April 8 that he had decided to retire. The physical demands of playing hockey professionally in combination with his MS were too difficult to balance.

"The hardness in it was really tough with the travel and the lack of sleep," he said. "Just putting your body through those paces is tough for any athlete. With MS, it made it that much harder."

In the Hurricanes' season finale in Philadelphia on April 9, Bickell scored a shootout goal in a 4-3 win against the Flyers. He finished his career with 136 points (66 goals, 70 assists) in 395 games in 10 seasons with the Blackhawks and Hurricanes. He won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

"It was a good career," he said. "If I looked back 20 years ago, if I could have had a career like that that, I'd take that every day. You think about after hockey and your health and we decided to finish it off that way and it was a pretty fun finish."

Bickell has stayed busy since then, moving with his family into their new house in Newcastle, Ontario. He and Amanda remain involved with The Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation, which helps rescue abused pit bulls, and are launching a service dog program to help those with the MS.

"If I was getting ready for a season next year I don't think I would be as busy," he said. "But what we're doing here today and what I'm going to be doing for the rest of time is to help spread awareness about MS and my story. I'm enjoying doing it. If I sat at home doing nothing I'd be really bored. So I'm happy to go do this."

Although Bickell doesn't have to train for another hockey season, he remains physically active and said his MS has been pretty well and flare-up free. Bickell said he watched more of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year than he usually would, but the reality that his playing days are over has settled in, at least until training camps begin in September.

"I think I've moved on to the point where I can enjoy the whole summer," he said. "I don't have to go busting my [rear end] in the gym and on the ice and things like that. But I can enjoy my family and that's what I'm going to be doing."

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