The Sad Story of Bryan Bickell

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When Blackhawks winger Bryan Bickell was placed on waivers Monday, it was just another transaction in the NHL docket. When no team claimed him, hardly a surprise due to his contract, he was assigned to Rockford. Yet it was more than just the usual transaction, for Bickell’s case is hardly usual.

In fact, Bryan Bickell’s case is a sad one. Here’s why.

Sure, it’s difficult to feel sorry for a professional athlete making millions. The hundreds of thousands in cap space the Hawks will save by demoting Bickell does not diminish his pay one iota. He will still get paid. but like a lot of athletes, it’s more than just money that’s important to him. It’s pride. And Bickell has enough of that for anyone to read his story and feel bad for the man.

Meanwhile, this is a story that gets lost in the euphoria that surrounds the team in the midst of an 11 game win streak. But it isn’t the best of times for Bickell.

Look, Bickell’s agent wants a trade and once that happens, he will likely get another chance with a different organization. Or, as they say in hockey, organ-I-zation. But that won’t fully heal the hurt that the man feels when he reviews his Hawks career, as he has probably played his last game for Chicago.

Yes, Hawks coach Joel Quenville said performance was the reason behind Bickell’s demotion and while true, it may not be entirely his fault. For the very reason behind his earlier success may now be the reason he can’t meet coach Q’s expectations for him. You see, the scorer that Bickell had become in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, with nine goals and 17 points, led to the four year, $16 million contract, was only a temporary thing. It’s the physical play that Q wants to see and that part of his game has been challenging for Bickell, to say the least.

While he may not admit it now, Bickell seems hesitant to stick his head into the scrum like Q wants. And the reason isn’t because he isn’t tough. It’s because he remembers the nightmare he had to go through after he signed the big contract. A nightmare that still involves headaches and other issues that the man simply can’t afford to have return.

It’s made him become a different player. A player that doesn’t fit what the Hawks are looking for, nor one that fits a man as big as Bickell is. Yet one can hardly blame the man after what he has had to endure.

Hockey is a rough and tough sport, to be sure. While CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is something that dominates the headlines in the NFL, hockey players also take their fair share of hits to the head. And it’s those hits to the head that almost ended Bickell’s career and I believe it’s a big part of the blame for his struggles now.

You see, Bickell himself admits that things had gotten so bad that he was seeing double on and off the ice. The terribly debilitating headaches were almost too much to bear. In an interview with WSCR “The Score” last December, Bickell said he’s had multiple concussions, and while those had typically gone away after a couple days, the one that led to the vertigo did not want to go away and he didn’t feel “safe”.

He seemingly got past those problems, and played so well the last time at Rockford that he got a second chance with Chicago. Yet after an early solid start, he appeared to have shied away from being the kind of physical player that the Hawks were used to seeing.

I’m not suggesting that Bickell suffers from CTE; I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Nor am I suggesting that continued physical play would necessarily lead to his developing such a condition. Yet it’s a known fact that the damage to his brain that he suffered is universally regarded as the main reason behind those that do end up with this tragic disease. While I’m sure he doesn’t think about that when he’s on the ice, it is natural for there to be a little bit of uncertainty and yes, even fear, of having to go through the headaches and double vision again. In the interview, he admitted that he has thought about the risk, but understands his responsibility to be the player he needs to be.

Yet he has tried and simply cannot be that same player any more.

Again, no one is going to throw a pity party for a millionaire and Bickell himself wouldn’t even want that. But having had a chance to talk to the man, it becomes easily apparent that he plays for much more than money. And to have that taken away from him would be devastating.

Officially, Bickell suffered from vertigo. He felt dizzy, yet it was a feeling that simply wouldn’t go away. It was initially reported as a “mystery ailment”, but there is no mystery about what caused it. The thing he loves to do more than anything is also the same thing that has tried to damage his mental and emotional state. It’s sad, and it’s serious.

Perhaps he’ll find his way again and become the player that we all thought he would become. But the fact that it likely won’t happen as a Blackhawks player makes me sad, and I’m sure bothers Bickell. He may not admit it publicly, but this is a guy who feels cheated by the injuries and no amount of money can make him feel better about that.

Good luck Bryan. And keep your head up.

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