- Bickell was diagnosed with MS in November 2016
- Had dreamed of an NHL return
- Recently announced retirement
(CNN)He woke with a start, a strange pain in his shoulder.
Used to big hits and aching bones, pro hockey player Bryan Bickell reassured himself, blaming the pain on a strange sleeping position, a pinched nerve, or perhaps an infected tooth he had at the time.
But it didn't subside.
"It came back, and it went down my arm," the 6-foot, 4-inch, 223-pound left winger tells CNN Sport. "Then, after a couple of weeks, it went down into my leg. This was something different."
Revered by 20,000 fans every time he took the ice, suddenly the three-time Stanley Cup winner was feeling decidedly human.
"The signals I was sending to the right side of my body were off," Bickell explains. "Something was not right."
When he moved his stick, "it was not doing what I was telling it to do." It was as if the skills the former construction worker had honed from the Greater Toronto Hockey League all the way to the NHL had been stripped away.
Even worse was the realization he had to pull himself off the ice.
End of the road?
Then, in November 2016, he got the news.
Bickell, a veteran of nine NHL seasons, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological disease that affects the central nervous system and for which there is no cure.
Ice hockey had been his lifelong dream. He'd relished every moment playing, from the "odd mini-stick games in hotel hallways" to the game-tying goal during Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup final with the Chicago Blackhawks.
What is multiple sclerosis?
- Progressive disease of central nervous system
- Affects nerves linking brain and spinal cord
- No cure but it can be managed with treatment
- Wide range of symptoms; fatigue is common
- More than 2.3M cases worldwide
- Women more likely to have it than men
- Diagnosis usually between 20-40 years of age
Suddenly he was confronted with an "indefinite" timeout.
"It was difficult," the 31-year-old admits as he remembers contemplating the idea of the curtain falling on his 15-year career. "I didn't know much about it, but as the days and the weeks went on, you learn more."
Bickell found himself, against the advice of his doctors, researching his condition on the internet. He prepared himself for vertigo, sustained fatigue, intermittent loss of balance, and potential vision problems.
The initial months were a "roller coaster," but emboldened by the positivity of his wife Amanda, Bickell resolved not to let his diagnosis define him.
He'd been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes prior to the 2016 NHL draft as the Chicago Blackhawks sought to shed his sizable salary. It was there Bickell found the resolve to gradually return to the ice.
He built up his strength playing for the Hurricanes' American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, duly registering a primary assist on February 26, in his first game back.