Jordan Sigalet’s NHL career consisted of 43 seconds of mop-up duty in a January 2006 Boston Bruins win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Most of his pro hockey career was spent in the American Hockey League, with a cup of coffee overseas before his retirement in 2009.
His career couldn’t be any different from that of Carolina Hurricanes forward Bryan Bickell, he of three Stanley Cups and almost 400 NHL games, except for one thing: both men were active hockey players when they were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
It was 2003 and Sigalet was in his junior year at Bowling Green, two years after being selected by the Bruins in the 7th round of the 2001 NHL Draft, when he was diagnosed. He was told that his hockey career was over.
"Those words lit a fire under me," he says. "I wanted to prove people wrong. I didn’t know if I could or not, but I was going to try. The ice was my comfort zone, where the last thing on my mind was MS."
As a student, he had to balance hockey and his schoolwork; he was in school studying digital arts, with a view to working on video games, and one of the major lifestyle changes associated with MS is making sure enough rest is built in. Ironically, Sigalet says, when he made it into professional hockey, it calmed his schedule down to the point where he was able to get the appropriate amount of down time to keep the disease suppressed as much as possible.
Multiple sclerosis impacts everyone differently depending on the progression of the disease. In Sigalet’s case, the lesions on his brain and spine affected the utility of his hands, and he had to get used to his hands going numb when an MS attack flared up.
Much of Sigalet’s focus was preventing the symptoms of the disease, which can be exacerbated by heat - not a good combination for hockey players, who are drenched in sweat after just about any activity. "I had to make little adjustments like taking a pain reliever to keep my temperature down, putting a cold towel on my head and an ice bag on my neck," he says. "At stoppages I squirted ice water down my back. I just had to do things that keep you fresh and cool."
One night in Providence in 2007, the disease caught up with him. Sigalet overexerted himself during a game against Worcester and collapsed midway through the third period, wheeled out of the arena on a stretcher.
"It was the scariest part of my career," he says.
He had to go through rehab and learn to walk again, determined to not let the episode ruin his hockey career. Eventually, after a short stint in Europe, he accepted that his career was over, but it wasn’t the disease that caused him to make the decision to retire.
"I wanted to keep playing, but that episode in Providence put a huge red flag on me," he says. "No one wanted to touch me at that point. I didn’t want to keep bouncing around European leagues when I didn’t know how my health was going to be and what the health care would be like."
Then, an opportunity presented itself that allowed Sigalet to remain in the game.
A position as the goaltending coach for the WHL Everett Silvertips opened in 2009, not long after Sigalet’s playing career ended. Sigalet jumped at it, and progressed from there to the AHL and finally to his current position, as the goaltending coach for the Calgary Flames, which he’s held since 2014.
Coaching is a good way to stay in the sport while being able to manage his MS, Sigalet says. "You’re not physically exerting yourself as much [as a coach]," he says. "Stress and pressure can not be good for the disease. I like the pressure of coaching. It’s a great way to stay involved in the game."
Sigalet, who tweeted Bickell on Friday following the announcement of Bickell’s diagnosis and has reached out to him through Canes goalie coach David Marcoux, says that while MS will undoubtedly impact Bickell’s career moving forward, it’s not a lead-pipe lock to end his career.
Thinking of @bbicks29 and his family today after hearing the news of his MS diagnosis.13 years ago I received the same news. Never give up!— Jordan Sigalet (@JMSigalet) November 11, 2016
Asked what timeframe Bickell was looking at to possibly return to hockey, Sigalet says that because every person is affected differently by the disease it’s hard to say. "When you have an attack, they put you on steroid treatment to bring down the inflammation in your brain and spine," he says. "The disease causes lesions both places. I have both, but some only have one or the other."
MS has two different types, progressive and relapsing-remitting, and Sigalet says that doctors won’t be able to diagnose which type Bickell has for another five years or so. Sigalet has the relapsing type, and he says that he’s been fortunate to regain full function after every attack.
He’s also been helped by the same thing that Bickell will have support from: a close-knit locker room that keeps his spirits high.
"A lot of [coping] is attitude and being surrounded by good people," Sigalet says. "Being around a team when I was diagnosed was huge. The roller coaster you go through as a hockey player prepares you for the adversity of the diagnosis."
"When you’re young, you can deal with things easier. A poor attitude makes the disease worse."
Sigalet is proof that Bickell’s diagnosis on its own doesn’t have to be the end of a career. Bickell’s teammates, who awarded him the Canes’ "chop wood, carry water" award after the win over the Capitals on Saturday, clearly have his back.
Canes coach Bill Peters echoes Sigalet’s comments about teammates rallying around Bickell.
"He’s a good man, he’s got energy, the guys love him and there’s lots to love. He’s a part of what we’re doing moving forward, one way or the other."