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Grinder

Jul 31 2017
Photo by
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Photo by
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jul 31 2017

There was no denying it: Something was wrong.

It was the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs in Chicago. We had just lost to Anaheim in Game 5 of the conference finals to fall behind 3–2.

There wasn’t a big speech in the locker room after the game. Most of us had been in this situation before. Guys weren’t feeling sorry for themselves. It was our third straight conference finals, and we were only two years removed from winning it all.

We knew what we had to do, and we knew how to do it. Everyone was eager to get back to Chicago and force a Game 7.

Everyone except me.

I sat at my locker with my gear on and my head down, asking myself the same question I’d been asking after every single game for the past two months:

Why do I suck?

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves sometimes. Sucking is a part of life. Like, no matter how good you actually are at whatever sport, there’s someone out there who is ready to tell you that you suck at it.

I definitely heard it in Anaheim.

“You suck, Bickell!”

It’s worse when they’re right, and you’ve been sucking for so long that you start thinking about picking the brain of the shirtless guy behind the glass who’s double-fisting beers.

“I know I do, shirtless guy. But why?

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images

I was barely 30. I had only been in the NHL for five years. But for some reason I was sore, sluggish, and getting really tired at random times during the day. I had no idea what was going on.

When I first started feeling different, toward the end of the regular season, I wrote it off as laziness. Like it was just a temporary mental lapse that had put me in a slump. I promised myself I’d be in better shape come playoff time.

Then the playoffs came, and I was still hurting. In fact, I was hurting even worse than before. I started missing practices, and then games during our first playoff series. I tried new training regimens, I tried altering my diet, I tried basically everything, but I just could not get going.

By the conference finals, I was beside myself. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Game 5 was my breaking point. I took a hit into the boards early in the third period and I couldn’t catch my breath, even after I got to the bench. I eventually huffed and puffed back to the locker room before I fainted, right there in the doorway. I fell face-first into a wall on my way down. I’m honestly lucky I still had my helmet on.

When I came to, the first thing I saw was the trainer, hovering over me with smelling salts.

“I think you need to see a doctor.”

At first, the doctors told me it could be any number of things — vertigo, some kind of issue with the fluid in my ear, or even residual symptoms from an infected tooth. Nobody knew for sure. I saw all kinds of specialists and found some temporary solutions, but it seemed like nothing was helping me get back to 100%.

We ended up coming back and beating Anaheim in seven games, and then we went on to win the Cup. Our second in three years. I finished with five assists, zero goals, and one really shitty feeling inside my body.

Of course you’re going to be happy when your team wins the Cup, but I just couldn’t celebrate for very long. I was beat down, and no matter what I tried, things just kept going downhill for me physically. I started to lose control of my left arm and leg. They would move at random times, like they had a mind of their own. Or they wouldn’t respond to my brain when I tried to tell them what to do.

I was losing control over my own body, and it was really, really scary.

The only thing that was scarier was that I couldn’t find anyone to tell me why it was happening. And I didn’t get an answer until a year and a half later.

Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty Images

When I walked out of the medical building and back to the parking lot, I wasn’t really thinking so much about my diagnosis. I was just trying to figure out how to break the news to my wife, Amanda, who was waiting for me in the car, without making her cry.

I closed the car door as quietly as I could when I got inside, because our two young daughters were sleeping in the backseat.

“What did they say?” My wife asked. “Was there anything on the MRI?”

My wife and I met when I was 16, back when I was playing junior hockey in Ottawa. (I had to chase her for a few years before she finally warmed up to me.) And I think she could tell, just from the sound of my voice, that this visit was different from all the other doctor visits we had been going through.

They said I have M.S., I imagined telling her. I tried to get those words out. And I’m not sure why, but I just couldn’t. Maybe my brain hadn’t fully processed it yet. Or maybe I’d convinced myself that if I told her, we would wake up the girls. Or maybe I just wasn’t quite ready for Amanda to see me cry. Or for me to see her cry. Whatever it was, though, in that moment — I said the most I could.

I said, “Can you go talk to the doctor?”

So we swapped places. Amanda got out of the car, and then went in on her own, while I stayed with the kids. I stared into the rearview mirror, looking at my peaceful, sleeping girls. It was one of the worst moments of my life … but in this weird way, I would have given anything for it to last forever. My wife was still walking up to the building, still a minute or two away from learning the news. My daughters were still sound asleep, still unaffected by any of the awfulness of the world. And their dad, well, he was sick but still not sick — still a hockey player, still healthy, still able, still O.K. He was still watching over them, and still taking care of them. He was still right there with them.

It didn’t last forever, of course. There was my wife, walking out of the medical building, coming back out to the car. She opened the door and got in, and neither of us said much of anything. There wasn’t much to say. I mean — what do you say? I’ll never play hockey again? You’re going to have to take care of three people soon? Our lives, as we know them, are over?

That was an incredibly hard day.

We did our best to comfort each other, but the next week was like a really crappy roller coaster. For every occasional glimmer of hope we’d find — Hey look, there’s medication! — there were a million bad things that followed: Side-effects of the medication include progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a viral brain disease that may cause seizures, mental deterioration, and coma.

Ah.

We both spent a lot of time looking up the progressive symptoms, possible treatment options, and stories about people living with M.S., and we just kept getting more discouraged. It would also get pretty emotional. Thinking about waking up one day and not being able to walk … or perform even simple day-to-day tasks … not being able to hug my wife or pick up my kids.

I didn’t want it to be the end, and neither did my wife. After a rough week, we tried our best to sit down, pull it together, and come up with a plan. We started talking to doctors more frequently about treatment options. We went through medications and costs — my wife double and then triple-checked every detail to make sure we were taking the best course of action. We did everything in our power to try and get our lives back to just being normal.

And normal, for me, really meant one thing: hockey.

I wanted to go out on my own terms.

David Berding/Icon Sportswire/AP

My locker was next to Marian Hossa’s when I came into the league. He actually recognized me from like seven years before — when he was still playing for the Ottawa Senators and I was just a lowly equipment boy, doing laundry and filling water bottles in exchange for high school credits.

When I got to the Blackhawks, Hossa liked to joke after games — “You know, Bryan, you can still wash my gear if you want.”

And honestly, after three-and-a-half seasons in the minors, I would’ve washed Hossa’s gear every night if it meant staying up with the Blackhawks. I loved playing for Chicago so much. I always felt beyond lucky to be a part of such a winning organization, and I have so many incredible memories of playing with them over the years.

I scored on the first shot of my first pro shift.

I won three Stanley Cups.

And, if you will allow me just one washed-up-old-guy war story: During the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the Kings, I actually tore my MCL in Game 5. But I wanted to stay in the game, so I stole one of Hossa’s stinky knee braces out of his locker without telling anybody. It didn’t fit right, so I had to rig it up with some hockey tape to keep it in place. But it worked just fine. We eventually won in double OT to close out the Kings.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In the Finals against Boston, I scored the tying goal with 1:16 left in regulation of Game 6 — a feeling that I will remember for the rest of my life. In a span of two months, I won my second Stanley Cup, married my wife, and signed the biggest contract of my life with the team that I loved.

Life is crazy, though. You can never take anything for granted. Because less than two years later, I was in Anaheim, laying on my back with our trainer hovering over me, wondering what the hell was going on.

Chicago was good to me when the 2016 season started. I got chances to play, but I was still sick and undiagnosed, so I just wasn’t able to perform. I played more games for the Rockford IceHogs that year than I did for the Blackhawks.

The next offseason I was traded to Carolina. When I got the M.S. diagnosis, I knew I only had so much time. So I wanted to go out on my own terms. After I told the team, I announced it to the public. I told everyone that I’d eventually be back. Not totally sure anyone believed it — or how much I even believed it at first.

I got an incredible amount of support from my teammates, and from both the Blackhawks and the Hurricanes staff — despite only having been in Carolina for a few months. Fan support was unreal, too. It was really inspiring to see such an outpouring of love after it was announced that I’d be taking a leave from the team for a while to get treatment.

I knew that coming back would be a grind. There were definitely some lows on the road to recovery. For two months, I was forbidden from doing any physical activity whatsoever. I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t jog — by the beginning of the third month, my skin was crawling. I spent every day just sitting around and feeling worthless.

I didn’t like my wife or my children seeing me in such a weak state. I was rotting on the inside, but I still had to be a husband and a father. There were days when I had trouble just getting out of bed, but I knew I had a responsibility to be strong for my family.

No matter how bad it got, I knew my wife always believed that it would get better. Even when I had my own doubts, she would never let me even think about calling it a day. It got to a point where I didn’t know if I was up and out of bed because of my will or hers. But as the months went by, I actually started to feel a little bit better. I knew I would, at some point, suit up and play hockey again. I had to.

I got 11 games in before the end. One goal. Four penalty minutes.

April 9, 2017 was the final game of the season. We were playing in Philly, and for the second game in a row, we were tied at the end of overtime.

The game before, Coach Peters had apologized to me for not putting me in the shootout. He knew this was my last ride, and our team was eliminated from the playoffs, so he felt bad.

But there we were again, two nights in a row. Coach looked down the bench, but this time he stopped when he got to me and smiled.

“Bickell. Tolchinksi. McGinn. Let’s go.”

It was the final moment of my NHL career. When I first started my comeback after announcing the M.S. diagnosis, I knew I’d never be 100% again. I knew it was physically impossible for me to be the player I was, and I knew teams around the league probably knew that as well.

Even if my body held up, in the back of my mind, I always knew that one more fluke hit could be the end. I couldn’t take that risk for my family. I worked my way back for one last ride, and I’ll always be proud of that.

Before I skated down the ice to take my shot, I looked around one more time. I was relieved, more than anything. I had battled my way back onto the NHL ice. It almost didn’t feel real.

I thought about all those years ago, working my way up through juniors. I thought about the 3 ½ years I spent in the minor leagues. I thought about Chicago — my first goal in Detroit, and that Game 6 vs. Boston.

I thought about when I face-planted into the wall two years later, and how I never thought I would play hockey again.

I thought about my family and friends, guys I played with and guys I played against. All the love that had been shown to me over the course of my career from fans and staff. It almost overwhelmed me, to the point that I didn’t know if I could skate down and take that last shot.

April 9, 2017 was the last time I would ever put on a uniform, the last time I would hop over the bench — and the last time Philadelphia fans would chirp me as I hopped over the bench.

“You suck, Bickell!”

Ah, it’s the best.

I skated down the ice and tuned everything out. For the next five seconds, everything was totally back to how it had always been. It was what I knew my whole life. It didn’t even matter if I scored — I was playing hockey again, and it was heaven.

Ting.

I scored. Off the post and into the back of the net. My first shot and my last shot in the National Hockey League were both goals.

Even the Philly fans cheered for me.

Whatever the future holds, I know that I’m heading into it on a high note — I’m as healthy as I’ve been in a while, and I have my amazing wife and two beautiful children taking the journey with me.

I know it probably won’t be easy, but I’ve never been scared of putting in the extra work.

So just do me one final favor.

When you remember the career of Bryan Bickell, I don’t want you to think about the guy with M.S.

I want you to think about the guy who loved this game so much that he stole Hossa’s stinky knee brace so he could play with a torn MCL. I want you to think about the guy who worked for it, and stuck with it, and won at it. I want you to think about the guy who retired on his own terms — and then moved through his 30s and 40s, into his 50s and 60s, into his 70s and 80s, like he skated through his 20s.

By grinding, one day at a time.