RALEIGH, N.C. -- The restaurant, just a stone's throw from PNC Arena, is filling up as the lunch hour approaches.
The waiter politely pauses amid the growing din to tell Carolina Hurricanes forward Bryan Bickell that he's a big fan and wishes him well. He reminds Bickell of the overtime goal the winger scored during the 2013 playoffs that helped propel the Chicago Blackhawks to the second of what would be three Stanley Cup championships in six years. The waiter reveals that he's a minor-pro hockey player and wonders if Bickell has any advice.
Bickell is supportive and offers a couple of tips and then jokingly asks later if we got it all on tape.
And for a minute, this seems like just another hockey story.
But not long after lunch, Bickell picks up his 2½-year-old daughter, Makayla, from preschool. Father and daughter are soon sitting together at the kitchen island of the family's Raleigh-area home, Makayla chattering away as she peels a tangerine. Down the stairs comes Bickell's wife, Amanda, holding Kaylee, who is 6 months old.
Amanda's brother, Devin, who has moved to Raleigh to help out the family, is puttering around the kitchen, and there is a pleasant hum common to happy homes, regardless of whether the resident is a three-time Stanley Cup champion or not. And it becomes very clear very quickly that this isn't so much a hockey story but a story about how people -- how families -- come together when life throws one of their own on his or her butt.
That's just what Bickell's family did after he left a morning skate in November before a game against the New Jersey Devils, knowing that something was definitely not right. His right arm, hand and leg were refusing to act as they should.
"It was just all of a sudden," Bickell explained over a healthy selection of salad and grilled chicken. "It was my right side of my body. My right arm, my right leg were kind of disconnected."
Bickell's extremities were still functioning, but the signals from Bickell's brain weren't getting through. And after months of trying to figure out what was ailing him -- was it vertigo? Concussion symptoms? A neurological issue? -- Bickell was about to find out he had multiple sclerosis.
"When he'd gone in and they said he was getting an MRI on his brain, it wasn't the first time, so I didn't really think much of it," Amanda said, referring to the experience of many hockey wives. "It didn't scare me. I really didn't even bat an eye at it. And so when we went to the doctor's office and they said Bryan had MS, I was just kind of in shock.
"And then I was like, 'So, now what?'"
Bickell grew up east of Toronto near Orono, Ontario, in a quintessential Canadian home. His dad, Bill, worked for the local municipality driving heavy machinery -- including, of course, a snowplow. Although he's technically retired, Bill still moves snow and works on construction projects. Bickell's mother, Anne, manages a garage specializing in diesel equipment. An avid quilter, she has also opened her own quilt shop.
Bickell met Amanda when he was 16 and playing major junior hockey in Ottawa. They met through a mutual friend -- although Bryan made quite an impression before they were even properly introduced.
"It was really slippery out, and I started to slip and before I ever knew his name, he just walked over and grabbed my hand and walked me to the door," Amanda said.
She wasn't interested in hockey players as a rule but, well, Bickell was persistent and sweet. And now, 14 years and two children later, they're facing this challenge as teammates, with one plan, one voice.
"The hardest part [of the diagnosis] was realizing that you don't know what's going to happen," Amanda said. "There's such a wide range of things that can happen to you with MS. Some people can have no issues, no medication, no nothing -- and then other people can be paralyzed, [experience] loss of hearing, loss of sight, loss of use of their legs, [be] in a wheelchair. So it really can go from one extreme to another."
Bickell won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010 -- playing four postseason games and registering one assist after spending most of the season in the AHL. Even though he didn't get his name etched on the chalice, he did get a ring. He was a force for the Blackhawks in the 2013 finals, collecting nine goals and 17 points as the Blackhawks dumped the Boston Bruins in six games. Two years later, when Chicago won again, Bickell was in physical turmoil, having suffered vertigo and other issues that kept him out of the lineup for part of the playoffs.
Last season, he played more games in the minors than he did with the Blackhawks as he struggled to find the source of those physical ailments. Then, before the current season, Bickell and his $4 million annual cap hit were dealt along with skilled forward Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina.
Bickell played seven games for Carolina before the MS diagnosis painted everything with a different sheen.
The diagnosis is uncommon but not unheard of in the NHL. Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding was diagnosed with MS before the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Harding did play sporadically while dealing with medication issues, including appearing in five playoff games in the spring of 2013. But he ultimately had to retire because of issues related to MS and is now helping coach a high school hockey team in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
Another goalie, Jordan Sigalet, was diagnosed with MS while playing for Bowling Green State University in 2003. Sigalet, drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2001, continued to play after the diagnosis both at the NCAA level and in the American Hockey League. He is now the goaltending coach of the Calgary Flames.
But having something definitive come out of something that was so nebulous was a silver lining of sorts for Bickell, and the couple who met on an icy sidewalk 14 years ago decided together that this wasn't going to beat them. Or, more to the point, if it does beat them -- and let's be honest, there's a possibility that Bickell won't be able to play in the NHL again -- it won't be because they didn't try to make the best damn batch of lemonade out of the bushel of lemons left on their front doorstep.
Don't mistake all of this for empty bravado. Several times while talking it in the kitchen, Amanda's eyes welled up with tears. But they disappeared just as quickly.
The months since the diagnosis have been difficult, but they've also offered a rare chance for Bickell to reconnect with his family, to learn the routines that are often mysteries to players whose schedules frequently preclude them from bedtimes, school pickups and the like.
But at the heart of this family is hockey, and so they have continued to focus their attention and energies on the game.
Bickell has found a medication -- Tysabri -- that he hopes will allow him to keep the symptoms at bay while he gets back on the ice well before he was projected to.
He is working to overcome a host of issues to get his game back, including a vestibular disorder that on this day swivels his head back and forth as he walks long, straight lines in the Hurricanes' locker room at PNC Arena.
"Obviously there are side effects with MS, so now I'm kind of working out everything," Bickell said. "My body, my eyes, my balance -- the things that kind of got thrown off the loop a couple of months ago -- they have to be kind of retrained too."
The next day, Bickell is the first one on the ice at the team's practice facility.
He still looks as imposing as he did when he was an integral part of those playoff runs in Chicago.
He's sporting a playoff-style beard, which adds to his already imposing visage. He calls it his "rehab beard."
There is a hopefulness about Bickell that is palpable.
And what's wrong with a little hope?
"Everyone was telling him not to skate, to wait at least another month on the medication," Amanda said. "And I said, 'If you feel like you want to step foot on the ice, step foot on the ice.' No one should tell you where you're at. Only you can say whether you're ready or not. And I just said, 'Go out there by yourself.'
"And that's what he did. Then he came back, and he said he felt fine and he felt good," she said, giving him a knowing smile.
The 30-year-old has skated now a handful of times. He talks about the Hurricanes' strong play of late and the possibility of a playoff berth and -- if everything falls together, the chance that he might be well enough to join the team for the postseason, which is when Bickell has been at his best.
"'How would I feel on the ice?' was the big thought going through my head," Bickell said. "But hey, the week and a half that I've been on the ice, it's going in the right direction, which is good."
It's not just the act of skating and shooting that helps him, but also the interaction with teammates -- even if he is still watching their games from the press box or the locker room -- or at home on the TV when they're on the road.
"It's tough watching because you can see yourself out there," Bickell said. "I feel like I'm a coach watching so many games. When I come back it's going to help me, I think."
When. Not "if."
Take that, MS.