In 2015, Bryan Bickell started feeling like he wasn’t on top of his game. Experiencing increasing soreness and chronic fatigue, the 30-year old NHL star was determined to find out what was causing the sudden changes. Over a year later, after numerous tests, he received his diagnosis—he had multiple sclerosis.
Since his diagnosis, and recent retirement from hockey, Bickell has become a hero in the MS community, speaking candidly and openly about his experiences with the disease. We caught up with him to learn about his hopes, his fears, and his next steps.
You show such confidence and determination in tackling the obstacles of your MS diagnosis head on. Could you give our readers a real quick recap of your diagnosis story and how that emotionally impacted you?
I had been experiencing unexplainable feelings for a while prior to being diagnosed. I didn't know what was happening with my body, but one thing I knew for sure was that playing hockey was becoming a little more challenging than it had been all my life. It wasn't until I felt like I was losing control of my arm and had to pull myself off the ice that made the doctor look a little deeper. I went for an MRI and the next day my wife and I were told I have MS.
From that day forward, my life changed. It got worse before it got better. I struggled with questions like, ‘What is going to happen to me?’ ‘What is going to happen to my career?’ And most importantly, ‘What is going to happen to my family?’ My wife quickly embedded in my head that we were a team and that I wasn't alone. We decided that we were going to live each day in the moment and that we were going to start turning a negative into a positive. From then on we've done just that and I'm feeling good and happy each day... well, most days.
You mentioned that hearing the diagnosis wasn’t the hardest part — it was telling your wife and daughters. What was your biggest fear in telling them?
Honestly, all that kept running through my head was: What if my wife has to not only take care of our two young children, but take care of me as well? Going from being a big, strong professional athlete to feeling weak and unable to provide for my family is what scared me.
What are your most common challenges on a daily basis? And how does your wife, Amanda, best support you day-to-day with the obstacles of MS?
Typically, I'm feeling pretty good day-to-day. My wife is usually the first one to push me in a positive direction anytime I'm feeling low. She reminds me of all I have to be grateful for, and helps me get to a non-stressful state.
Are you still connected with the NHL community?
Definitely. That's been my life and my family for the past 10 years, and always will be.
You once said, “When you remember the career of Bryan Bickell, I don’t want you to think about the guy with MS.” Can you talk about what you were feeling at the time? And are you still concerned about your NHL legacy because of your diagnosis?
I worked really hard to get where I was. I'm proud of my accomplishments and of everything I was lucky enough to be a part of. I don't want MS to take that away from me and I don't want people to feel sorry for me because I still had a great career. I accomplished my dreams. Sure, it got cut short, but I'm lucky and I’m still the same guy.
What positive impacts have come from this journey after your diagnosis? In other words, what are you most thankful for looking back on your story thus far?
I'm thankful for the opportunity it has given me to help even more people out by sharing my story and through the work of my foundation. We've recently added a new program where we will be providing service dogs, free of charge, for people in need who are suffering from MS. The symptoms for MS vary drastically from person to person, so the dogs will be trained based on that specific individual’s needs. Knowing that I can be a part of making someone's life easier gives me great joy and pushes me to stay strong. I’ve also been working with Biogen to share my MS story with others, and encouraging those living with the condition to talk to their doctor about treatment options and connect with others with similar experiences. I hope I can help people with MS stay positive and fight for their goals.
Is there anything that you have taken with you from your hockey training that you apply to living with MS?
I've always been a fighter on the ice and had to work hard to get where I wanted to be. I will continue to look at these challenges no differently.
Healthline created the MS Buddy app to allow people with MS to connect with others for the emotional support and connection that usually gets lost in a diagnosis. Who do you confide in, if anyone, that has MS, and how has that helped you in your health journey?
For the most part, I just confide in my wife. However, it helps me when I meet other people with MS that share their stories with me and tell me that I've encouraged them to keep fighting and stay positive.
If you could give any piece of advice to someone who has just been diagnosed with MS or who has lived with it for quite some time, what would you tell them?
That your life is not over. Stay positive and focus on the good in your life and not the bad. I also like to remind everyone that you are not alone and we will fight this together!