The NHL’s regular season is full of special moments, but perhaps the most meaningful one came on the final day of play.
It began when Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters tapped Bryan Bickell as the first shooter in the first round of a shootout against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
It would be the last shot of Bickell’s NHL career.
As Bickell skated in on goaltender Anthony Stolarz, he snapped off a hard shot that clanged against the left post and into the back of the net.
A large crowd of his family and friends erupted from the stands in the Wells Fargo Center, as did his Hurricane teammates who had to hold back from clearing the bench in celebration. The Hurricanes would go on to win 4-3 in the shootout — a fitting end to his NHL career.
It was one of those unforgettable moments in a hockey game that’s symbolic of so much more off the ice.
The 31-year-old forward is leaving the game to focus on battling Multiple Sclerosis — a disease he was diagnosed with on Nov. 11, 2016. MS is an unpredicatable disease of the central nervous system that can often have disabling effects.
There are different forms of MS, and with some medications, these can help keep it under better control. However, the unpredictable nature of the disease makes keeping symptoms that way a challenge. There is no way around side effects that can have a major impact on a person’s daily life and more aggressive forms of the disease can leave an otherwise healthy person wheelchair-bound in a matter of months.
It is unknown what the nature of Bickell’s MS is at this point and it’s certainly nothing to speculate about. What we do know, though, is that a beloved father, husband and teammate has walked away from the only career he’s ever known to focus completely on his health and his family.
It’s a sobering reality but one that Bickell and his loved ones will tackle together.
But if there’s one thing people can take from Bickell, it’s the power of hope and determination. It’s how he’s left a lasting legacy in his playing career’s final chapter.
After being drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, he grew into a successful role player with the club. During the team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2010, Bickell played in just four postseason games after 16 regular-season contests. Although the team won the Cup, his name was not one of the 52 etched on the trophy.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Bickell said shortly after learning the news, according to ESPNChicago.com. “It kind of hurts that it’s not on there … but I was up and down all year.”
But for Bickell, it was about his teammates and his franchise, not himself.
“[The Cup] just shows the core, and it doesn’t start with the players, it starts with the people upstairs, too,” Bickell said. “They help a lot and make everything happen. So I understand. Maybe next time.”
Next time came just three years later and Bickell’s performance earned him a place for his name on hockey’s most iconic prize.
After registering 23 points in the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular 2012-13 season, he tallied nine goals and eight assists in 23 postseason contests en route to the Stanley Cup. His performance in the postseason that year, culminated in his game-tying goal with under a minute remaining in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins — just 17 seconds before his teammate Dave Bolland scored the Cup-winner.
Bickell would be another important part of the Blackhawks’ 2014-15 regular season, scoring 28 points in 80 games and helping his team earn another playoff berth. In the 2015 postseason, he was held to five assists in 18 games as his team hoisted the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years.
In the 2015-16 season, he split time between the Blackhawks and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, playing in just 25 games at the NHL level. He was struggling on the ice, but it wouldn’t be until months later that people would learn more about what he was battling off of it.
He was traded to the Hurricanes with teammate Teuvo Terravainen this past offseason and seven games into the 2016-17 regular season he announced his MS diagnosis.
“Since the 2015 playoffs, I’ve been struggling to understand what was going on with my body,” Bickell said in a statement released on Nov. 12, 2016. “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.”
Years from now, people will look back on Bickell’s hockey career and think about how it stood for so much more than what happened on the ice.
They will remember his performances in NHL postseasons — the goals, assists and his grit. But more importantly they’ll think back to this past season and what he has faced away from the game. The news of his MS diagnosis, his return to the ice and ultimately, his battle to come.
After beginning treatments for MS and spending time with his family, it became clear Bickell was determined to fulfill his goal of making a return to the NHL. He was cleared to play in February and was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL after clearing waivers — a necessary move to give him more than two weeks there for conditioning purposes.
After 10 games with the Checkers, news surfaced that he could be making his return to the NHL before the end of the regular season. Another remarkable chapter to his story, given the news months earlier.
On Tuesday, he made his return to the Hurricanes for the first time since his diagnosis. He played 12:35 — the second-most ice time he’d skated all season.
After his return to PNC Arena with the Hurricanes on Thursday, he was asked about how he was feeling after two games back. The raw emotion in his response was perhaps a glimpse into the toll of the adversity he’s faced in the past five months and will face going forward.
On Saturday, Bickell participated in an MS walk in Raleigh and was surprised by his teammates and coaches, who each attended the event clad in shirts that read “Bickell Brave” on the front with his No. 29 on the back. Hours later it was announced that the final two games of the season would be his last.
We’d also learned that his teammates had voted Bickell the 2016-17 Steve Chaisson Award winner, “given annually to the Hurricanes player that best exemplifies determination and dedication while proving to be an inspiration to his teammates through his performance and approach to the game,” per the organization.
During a more lighthearted moment before his final game, Bickell joked about trying to score at least one more goal in his final game.
And with a large crowd of family and friends on hand in Philadelphia on Sunday, in a career that had its share of big moments, he saved his best for last.
As that puck clanged off the post and into the net, it stood for much more than just the first tally in a shootout. It was the culmination of his journey to return to the game, and at the same time, it marked the end of his playing career.
It also stood for the hope and determination it took for Bickell and his family to get to there together, and what it will take for him moving forward in his battle with MS.
There are moments in the game that transcend far beyond the rink where it is played. On Sunday, Bryan Bickell gave us one of them and the message behind that last shot is one that should never be forgotten.
Steven is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the game of hockey. He’s the Lead Writer covering the Tampa Bay Lightning with THW. He’s also been press credentialed through the Lightning since 2016. His work has been published at The Fourth Period, LightningInsider.com, Bolt Prospects, The Sports Daily Network, U.S. College Hockey Online and College Hockey News. He’s had radio appearances on TSN 690 in Montreal, Lightning Power Play Live and multiple podcasts to give insight and analysis on the team. He can be reached on Twitter @StevenDiOssi and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.