Bryan Bickell has played 391 career games in the National Hockey League, but No. 392 will be unlike any of the others.
“It almost feels like my first game again,” he said Tuesday. “It will be special. It will be emotional.”
Five months ago, Bickell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Just like that, the Carolina Hurricanes forward had his hockey life put on hold. The only thing that mattered was his health and his family, with learning to cope and deal with a disease with no cure.
But Bickell, 31, has responded well to MS treatments. He returned to hockey – first in practices with the Canes in January, then playing 10 games with the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s American Hockey League affiliate.
On Tuesday night, Bickell was in the Canes’ lineup for their road game against the Minnesota Wild. Back in the NHL. Back for No. 392.
“It means so much after all the ups and downs this year and all we’ve been through in the course of the year,” Bickell said in an interview after the Canes’ morning skate. “I’ve stayed positive through all of this, hoping this day would come. I’m excited to get back out there.”
Bickell played on a line centered by Andrew Poturalski, who was making this NHL debut, along with winger Brock McGinn.
“I know (Poturalski) will be excited in his first game, so I will try to give him some of my wisdom and advice,” Bickell said before the game.
The line was on the ice for two of the Wild’s three first-period goals. Bickell had 12:35 of ice time and was credited with three hits in the game.
“It was a little 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 as the game went on we got better.”
Bickell and Poturalski, 23, were recalled Monday by the Hurricanes after the Checkers had played the Chicago Wolves on Sunday in an AHL road game. They joined the Canes in St. Paul, Minn., and Bickell said he soon texted with former Wild goalie Josh Harding.
Harding has been a part of Bickell’s support system the past five months. Harding was diagnosed with MS in 2012 and continued to play for the Wild until after the 2013-14 season, and he has shared his experiences – his ups and downs in dealing with the disease – with Bickell.
Bickell said he was happy that Harding, who lives in Edina, Minn.,was able able to make it to Tuesday’s game, saying, “It would be nice to meet him after the way he’s helped me out along the way.”
Bickell’s wife, Amanda, and their two daughters weren’t able to attend Tuesday’s game on short notice, nor were other family members. The Canes play their final two home games Thursday against the New York Islanders and Saturday against St. Louis, then close the season with a road game Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“If everything goes well I’m hoping some of my family can drive the six hours down to the Philly game,” he said.
Bickell came to the Canes with forward Teuvo Teravainen in Carolina’s June 2012 trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. A three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks, Bickell played in seven games for the Canes before dizziness and numbness in his right arm and leg caused him to stop playing.
Bickell’s last NHL game was Oct. 30 against the Flyers at PNC Arena. An announcement on the MS diagnosis was made by the Hurricanes on Nov. 11.
Bickell will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. He isn’t sure what’s ahead for him in his hockey career.
“I don’t know where this will lead,” he said. “If this is it, then this is it and it has been a great run.
“All you can do it take it one day at a time. Stay positive and take it a day at a time.”