ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Just seven games into his debut season with the Carolina Hurricanes, after realizing his body wasn't right, Bryan Bickell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The devastating news triggered questions about whether his career would be over. Those first few weeks of his hiatus for treatment were tough.
The nearly five months that have since passed felt, at times, like years.
Finally, as a testament to modern medicine, family support and an optimistic attitude, Bickell has returned to restart his first season with the team. The 30-year-old played in Carolina's 5-3 loss to Minnesota on the fourth line wit Brock McGinn and Andrew Poturalski, who played with Bickell in the AHL and was making his NHL debut. Bickell was on the ice for 12:35.
''I thought he was great,'' teammate Jeff Skinner said. ''He moved well, skated well and made some good plays for us. That's a pretty good story and shows the perseverance, mental toughness and everything. It's inspiring, and for me it's cool to be a part of it and witness it first-hand.''
Bickell was a minus-2, on the ice for Minnesota's second and third goals.
''It was a little bit of a rough start, but emotionally it was good to get back out there,'' Bickell said. ''Obviously that first period wasn't what we wanted as a line, but I think as the game went on it got better. You just think about all the thoughts and all the things you've gone through to get to this moment and the people that reach out and help and the support. It means a lot.''
Bickell was acquired along with forward Teuvo Teravainen in an offseason trade that sent a pair of draft picks to Chicago, where he won three Stanley Cups with but became expendable with the Blackhawks needing to clear salary cap space.
Bickell scored once for Carolina before the disease that attacks the nervous system was discovered. He resumed practicing with the Hurricanes in January and began playing for Charlotte in the AHL in February, accumulating one goal and three assists for the Checkers. His timing was off and his fundamentals were rusty, but there weren't any complications or setbacks.
''Definitely blessed,'' Bickell said. ''We didn't know when this day was going to come, but I'm happy to be here.''
Bickell hoped to connect in person with former Wild goalie Josh Harding, who won the NHL's Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012. Harding went 18-7-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage during the 2013-14 season for the Wild, before eventually being forced by the effects of his condition to retire. Harding has already provided ample counsel to Bickell.
''With MS you need to keep cool, and that was a big thing for him. He was a goalie. He had to stand up the whole time,'' Bickell said. ''I get breaks. I get to sit on the bench. But it's nice to reach out to him and get some thoughts off of what he's been through.''
His teammates were excited, too.
''He's been working hard all year, even before that,'' defenseman Justin Faulk said. ''And with that happening, you don't know how it's going to affect your life, and I think he's always had a positive attitude at least around us. I know there have probably been some tough times through there, but he's been awesome.''