On the day he received the news that his life would never be the same, Bryan Bickell strode unsure from a Raleigh, N.C., medical office. It was last fall, early afternoon, as he walked toward his wife, Amanda, who sat in the driver’s seat of the family car. In the back were the couple’s two young girls, Makayla and Kinslee, who had slipped into a nap after lunch.
Amanda didn’t normally accompany Bryan to doctor’s appointments, but something felt different about this visit. During the 2015 playoffs, Bickell, then with the Chicago Blackhawks, was felled under mysterious circumstances. He couldn’t catch his legs. He was dizzy, easily winded. He first believed the culprit was an infected tooth, but despite treatment he never could seem to feel quite right.
To some doctors, the symptoms suggested vertigo, and Bickell, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016, underwent every test under the sun to determine a course of treatment. Eventually, when nothing seemed to take, an MRI was ordered, and when the results came in last fall, Bickell was summoned into the office of Dr. Josh Bloom, the Hurricanes’ team doctor.
While Bryan met with Dr. Bloom, Amanda stayed in the car with the sleeping kids, her feet on the dash, tapping away on her phone. Suddenly, after just 15 minutes inside, Bryan emerged at the car door. Something was off.
He stared blankly at his wife. “Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Can you go in to talk to the doctor?” Bryan asked.
Amanda did her best not to read too much into the request.
“I just said, ‘OK,’ got up and walked in,” she recalled. “Initially, my mind didn’t go very negative. I kind of thought maybe he just didn’t understand what the doctor was saying.”
While Bryan waited by the car, Amanda walked to the reception area, where she was led back into Dr. Bloom’s office. Almost immediately, she was greeted with looks of concern. Someone asked her if she’d prefer one of the nurses go outside and stay with the girls, so that Bryan could come back in before the doctor began.
Now, she feared, things were getting serious.
“No,” Amanda said, “it’s OK. Just let me hear it.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, some 2.5 million people around the world suffer from the disease, a disabling neurological condition that’s particularly prevalent in young adults.
Certainly, far fewer are diagnosed while they are playing in the NHL.
Before last fall, when Dr. Bloom told him he had MS, Bickell was a solid pro, four times eclipsing 20 points over parts of nine seasons with Chicago, where he won two Stanley Cups. His career hallmark came in the 2013 playoffs: Bickell scored nine goals during the Blackhawks’ title run, including the tying goal with 1:16 left
in the third period of Game 6 against the Boston Bruins. Chicago took the lead seconds later, and the rest is history.
He was traded to Carolina last year along with Teuvo Teravainen, casualties of the Hawks’ salary cap constraints. Still a respected vet, the hope was Bickell might help shape a young team, but his diagnosis prevented him from making the impact the club thought he could.
Once they left Dr. Bloom’s office that day, Bryan and Amanda scrambled to grasp what their new life would become. At first, Bryan was more irritable, stress finding him more easily than it had before. He struggled with fatigue, and his motor skills began to fail him. The cold seemed to augment his symptoms, which he learned would affect him more or less depending on the time of day.
Before he could decide his hockey future, Bickell first had to decide on a course of treatment. Doctors placed him on a drug called Tysabri, which he would be administered once a month, hooked up to an IV for about an hour. In some ways, it was a miracle. Though Bickell’s MS is in its early stages, the drug seemed to relieve his symptoms completely. Only during the later days in the month, when the medication wears off, do they return.
“Those days,” Bickell said, “you’re kind of looking forward to the next treatment.”
He was able to return to the ice last February, fighting his way back to playing pro again with Carolina’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. Yet Bickell had a tough choice ahead of him. At his best, with MS, he could reclaim his old game, the speed, stamina and strength that made him the player he was. But it was
fleeting. Sometimes, as soon as he regained what he had been on the ice, it was gone again.
The decision was brutal. Bickell, still only 31, believed he had plenty left in the tank. But ultimately his disease wouldn’t allow him to be the player he needed to be, as consistently as he needed to be it. He leaned on Amanda to make the call.
“She’s the rock in our relationship,” he said.
Before he would officially hang it up, Carolina called him up for the last four games of the season, including its final game against Philadelphia, where, in front of nearly 20 visiting family and friends, Bickell scored a thrilling shootout goal on the final shot of his career. Of his choice to retire, Bickell said, “It was the smarter thing for my health.”
His days now are spent with his wife and daughters. He and Amanda will become faces of this disease, making public appearances and raising funds. Each dollar, Bickell hopes, will bring researchers closer to a cure.
Largely, Bickell’s MS is under control. Most days, aside from fatigue, he shows no symptoms at all. But of course there will be hurdles to come in his life, not all of them physical.
Bryan and Amanda haven’t yet told Makayla and Kinslee of Bryan’s condition. Bryan isn’t quite sure how that will go, other than he knows it’ll be something he has to one day do.
But his philosophy toward how he’ll tell them is maybe a window into how he views his life with this disease, how he refuses to be defined by multiple sclerosis, how he’ll continue on as the same man he has always been.
“They know me as daddy,” he said. “They don’t know me as daddy with MS.”