‘There is always life after hockey’: Bryan Bickell adjusts to life with MS – Chicago Tribune
Two-year-old Makayla Bickell loves to talk about hockey. Since April, she has repeatedly asked her parents when they are going back to the arena to see another game. But the answer isn’t so easy.
But for his oldest daughter Makayla, the concept of retirement still hasn’t processed. Whenever Makayla watches TV and sees a Blackhawks or Hurricanes jersey flash across the screen, she shouts, “Daddy scores!”
But her dad isn’t on the screen. He is at home. And he is not returning to the ice.
“It was really tough,” Bickell said in a telephone interview. “For me, I think about my family. I have two young girls, and you always want to think about family first. Hockey is a luxury. There is always life after hockey.”
For Bickell, 31, his symptoms started in November with what felt like a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Initially thinking he had slept on his shoulder wrong, he took some Aleve, iced it and moved on.
It wasn’t until the pain traveled down his arm and leg that he got an MRI exam. Lesions in his brain and spine confirmed the disease.
After being placed on injured reserve until January, Bickell played 10 games for the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate before playing in the Hurricanes’ final four games of the season. It was then he decided this year would be his last.
“You want to play as long as you can, but you look back at the wins and the highs and lows, I wouldn’t take it back,” Bickell said. “It was an unbelievable period. I enjoyed it in many ways. I wish it went on a little longer, but it is what it is and that is where the cards fell.”
More than 2.3 million people are affected by MS worldwide. Its cause is still unknown, and the disease cannot yet be cured.
MS is a disease of the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) in which the immune system attacks myelin, the protective coating around nerve fibers. The more the myelin is damaged, the more the nerves are interrupted, producing a variety of symptoms that vary in severity.
Bickell never heard of MS before his diagnosis.
“He was scared that he was going to continue to get worse and that he was going to leave me to take care of our kids,” said Bickell’s wife, Amanda. “Him in a wheelchair and all of those fears went through his head. I just kind of said to him, ‘You need to stop doing this because it’s okay. No matter what happens. If you end up in a wheelchair and I have to take care of you and the kids, I’m okay with that. Don’t worry about me.’ “
Seven months after his diagnosis, Bickell is feeling “pretty symptom-free.” He’s been taking Tysabri, a medication for MS, since December.
Andrew Shaw, a former teammate of Bickell’s in Chicago, has seen Bickell’s progress firsthand.
“He looks chipper. He looks happier,” Shaw said. “He smiles every time I see him. He’s always smiling. I think he does feel better. I think he is improving. He’s going to do everything in his power to make sure he’s healthy.”
In addition to the medication, Bickell gets an MRI every three to four months to check on his progress. So far, the results have been promising.
“The whole journey, me getting diagnosed to getting where I am now, a big part of this was a mental and positive attitude,” Bickell said. “You know for me and my wife, we’ve always said turn a negative into a positive.”
Positivity is a trait Amanda has instilled in him ever since they discovered he had MS.
After the initial shock of his diagnosis, Bickell couldn’t tell his wife what was wrong. The only words he could muster were, “Can you go talk to the doctor?”
Amanda obliged, leaving Bryan with their two daughters who were sleeping in the car outside the doctor’s office. After the doctor told her the news, Amanda walked straight back to the car, hugged Bryan and said, “It will be okay. We will get through this. Everything will be okay.”
“Knowing I needed to be strong and stronger than him to get him through this overpowered my fear,” Amanda said. “Immediately I just took on the role of being that emotional support for him.”
Since hanging up his skates, Bickell now resides with his wife and two daughters, Makayla and Kinslee (turning 1 in July), in Newcastle, Ontario.
The family moved into their new home last month. The house is still a work in progress. The only furniture they have are beds and a couch, with plastic bags on the windows. But to them, it’s home.
Since retiring, Bickell has been spending a lot of time with his daughters, fishing on his boat, attending events to raise awareness for MS and continuing to run his nonprofit, the “Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation.”
The foundation started six years ago and its goal is to create awareness for the “compassionate, loyal and misunderstood dogs labeled ‘pit bulls’ ” and working with them to assist formerly abused children. Its latest endeavor will be providing service dogs to individuals living with MS. The program launches in July.
“A lot of MS people need service, stability, a whole bunch of different things, and we are going to help out these dogs and help out people at the same time,” Bickell said. “It’s something me and my wife enjoy doing.”
With Bickell enjoying his day-to-day life with his family, he doesn’t foresee a return to the hockey world anytime soon. In the meantime, he enjoys watching hockey from home.
“When September comes and the snow starts to fall and he’s still sitting at home and the season starts I think is when it’s really going to sink in,” Amanda said. “He will definitely miss playing the game and the atmosphere and being on the ice.”