RALEIGH -- With each day, each practice, almost each stride on the ice, Bryan Bickell has gotten closer.
In November, when the Carolina Hurricanes forward was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so much was unknown, his future uncertain.
Would he ever play hockey again? Could he play it at the NHL level? Or did having MS mean retirement from professional sports? What were the treatments? How long would they take?
The questions were many, but most have been addressed and answered. The treatments have been effective, controlling the symptoms of MS. He was able to return to Canes practice and was assigned Friday to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.
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Bickell, who had to clear waivers, is expected to play his first game Saturday with the Checkers, moving another step closer to an NHL return with the Canes.
“If you asked me to play right now, I think I would be pretty good,” Bickell said Thursday, smiling. “But I know it’s comfortable for (the Canes) for me to go down there and get some minutes and get reps in practice and get my timing back.
“Games are a lot different from practice. So I’ll get my confidence and hopefully come back up here and be ready to roll.”
Bickell, who won three Stanley Cup rings with the Chicago Blackhawks, came to the Canes with forward Teuvo Teravainen in the June trade with Chicago. He played seven of the first eight games of the season and had a goal in the home opener, on a shot that glanced off his chest in front of the New York Rangers net.
While it proved to be the game-winner, Bickell’s goal initially was credited to Skinner. It cost Skinner a hat trick — and a lot of Canes fans their hats, thrown on the ice after Skinner’s shot — and resulted in some locker-room chirping after the Oct. 28 game.
Two days later, Bickell played just 5:45 against the Philadelphia Flyers. It would be his last game of the season.
On Nov. 11, the Hurricanes announced Bickell had been diagnosed with MS.
“Since the 2015 playoffs, I’ve been struggling to understand what was going on with my body,” Bickell said at the time. “Again during the past few weeks, it felt like something wasn’t right. Obviously this is a bit of shock for my family and me, but I am hopeful I will be able to return to the ice and continue playing the game that I love.”
Bickell, 30, received an outpouring of support from the Canes, former teammates and others throughout the NHL. Josh Harding, the former Minnesota Wild goalie who has MS, reached out to Bickell.
Bickell began practicing with the Canes in mid-January and has traveled with the team at times. His conditioning drills ratcheted up and in recent weeks he has been going full speed.
On Thursday, the Hurricanes placed him on waivers for the purpose of sending him to Charlotte.
“Bryan has worked extremely hard,” general manager Ron Francis said Thursday. “Hopefully he can get back up here to the NHL before the end of the season.”
Canes coach Bill Peters said Bickell’s attitude has been “unbelievably fantastic,” again calling him a source of inspiration. Going to Charlotte, Peters said, moves him closer to fulfilling his goal of being back in the NHL with the Canes.
“It’s just a moving target as to when he’ll get back and play for us at the NHL level, but I’m not betting against Bryan Bickell, I can tell you that much,” Peters said.