Bryan Bickell is practicing with the Carolina Hurricanes again, skating, pushing himself, facing an uncertain future but more excited, not troubled, by it.
Bickell is back on the ice. The lungs burn and the legs are sore, but he says he feels more normal now. He feels more like a hockey player, feels more alive.
Bickell, who has multiple sclerosis, speaks openly about the disease, which was diagnosed in November. At times he will use the phrase “when that day comes” but not in a dire way.
For Bickell, 30, it means that day when he puts on the Hurricanes jersey again, when he rejoins the lineup and plays in an NHL game. The forward hopes that day will come this season, setting that as a personal goal, something that helps drive him.
“With the treatments I’m getting, every month it’s getting better and I think my body is adjusting,” Bickell said in an interview. “The first couple of months is the real test of whether it holds and treats it right.
“For me, it’s now getting on the ice and working hard to get my game somewhere close to getting back in the lineup. The progress is going the right way and that’s what we’ve been looking forward to the past couple of months.”
The initial response to the MS diagnosis was one of disbelief, then acceptance. For Bickell and his wife, Amanda, it was a life-altering moment but also one they have tackled head-on.
Bickell, an NHL veteran, was aware that former Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding has MS, and that Harding returned to the NHL after his diagnosis and treatment. Harding no longer plays, but MS did not mean instant retirement from the sport.
Bickell has been undergoing once-a-month treatments with Tysabri, which is administered intravenously at Raleigh Neurology. The drug slows the worsening of MS symptoms and reduces the number of relapses.
Now back on the ice, putting in a third full practice Wednesday, Bickell isn’t ruling out a return this season.
“There’s a lot of games left,” he said. “I got this news a quarter of the way through the season. I’d like to think I can get back sometime in the last quarter.
“From a couple of months ago, mentally not knowing when that day would come, to now … The mental game is a big part of getting back in shape and staying positive and knowing what you have to do to get back in the lineup.”
Mainly, it means work, on and off the ice. While practicing with the team, Bickell also has had the “skates with Brindy” – that is, the intense extra skating done with Canes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“It’s tough skating with three or four guys and getting a bag skate like that,” Bickell said. “But getting into practices and get into the flow and getting some rhythm drills, it’s nice and it feels good. So we’re going in the right direction and that’s what I need to do.”
Asked how the lungs were treating him, Bickell smiled.
“If you don’t use ‘em, you lose ‘em. I don’t think I ever took off this much time before. Hopefully they come back quicker than I lose ’em.”
And the legs?
“Getting there, day by day getting better. The recovery is getting a lot quicker, which is nice.”
Bickell chuckled when a question was asked about his hands, about his stick-handling.
“They’re always quicker to get back than the lungs. But with my game I don’t really need much hands.”
What Bickell could bring to the Canes is more size. He can be a 6-foot-4, 223-pound banger, someone willing to go to the front of the net and stay there, being a nuisance for opposing goalies.
Bickell also has experience. He won three Stanley Cup rings with the Chicago Blackhawks and has played in 75 playoff games.
“It’s exciting having him here,” Canes forward Viktor Stalberg said Wednesday. “Even in some of the toughest times, he was here, engaged with the guys and part of the team. I’m not sure about the prognosis and it obviously was life-changing for his family, but it’s great to have him back.”
The Canes, despite the recent four-game slide, believe they have a team that will have staying power and push for the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Bickell said the Canes are “close” and that he wants to help them get there.
“Probably the last 25 games are going to be feeling like playoff games,” he said. “Hopefully I can get in. That’s where I think my game comes, in a playoff-type atmosphere, the heavy physical games. That’s my game.”
But Bickell also must be realistic. There could be side effects from his treatments or other setbacks in his recovery.
There’s also the matter of being needed in the lineup. He last played in a game Oct. 30 against Philadelphia.
“Hopefully I can help out,” Bickell said. “If not, hopefully I can be in the locker room and ping-pong questions around the guys, talk about plays and be positive.
“Going through this whole process, mindset is a big thing. Being positive and being positive with your teammates, I think, is what I’ve done to help these guys and get through my own mission right now.”
Canes coach Bill Peters said Wednesday that Bickell continues to make progress, and that he would be updated by the doctors about Bickell’s status. Can Bickell make it back this season?
“You know what, the human spirit is a powerful thing,” Peters said.
Los Angeles Kings at Carolina Hurricanes
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh