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Former Blackhawk Bryan Bickell diagnosed with multiple sclerosis

During the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, former Blackhawk Bryan Bickell wasn't feeling right. At first, doctors thought Bickell had vertigo.

Then, as symptoms persisted, Bickell was diagnosed with an ocular issue. But in the last few weeks, Bickell was feeling sick again — and this time the diagnosis was more serious.

Bickell has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Bickell said he will take time off to seek treatment but plans to return to the ice.

"Since the 2015 playoffs, I've been struggling to understand what was going on with my body," Bickell said in a statement his current team, the Hurricanes, released. "Again during the past few weeks, it felt like something wasn't right.

"Obviously this is a bit of a 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."

Bickell, 30, played in parts of nine seasons with the Hawks and signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the team after helping it win the Stanley Cup in 2013.

The winger never played up to the expectations of that contract, and now it appears his health contributed to his decline in play over the last year.

During his last season with the Hawks, multiple doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. At times Bickell said he was fine. But other times he said symptoms of vertigo and the ocular issue bothered him.

Roumen Balabanov M.D., a neurologist who diagnoses and treats MS at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said MS could appear in different symptoms and be hard to diagnose.

"In early stages of MS, mild symptoms like dizziness and fatigue can be mimicked by other conditions and can be easily ignored," said Balabanov, who has not examined Bickell. "It is imperative to increase awareness of the disease and what signs to look for so patients understand the early symptoms."

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks the central nervous system made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Balabanov said the disease is not fatal and life expectancy for MS patients is "close to normal," though it is a "spectrum disease" that can present "mild to disabling" symptoms in different patients.

Despite the frustration of not knowing what was wrong with him when he was with the Hawks, Bickell never had any problem with how the Hawks' medical staff treated him in Chicago, Bickell's agent, Todd Diamond, told the Tribune. Bickell declined to comment when reached by the Tribune.

"They looked at and assisted in addressing many potential scenarios during and after the 2015 playoffs," Diamond said. "It is difficult at this point to say if those symptoms were the onset of the current situation. Bryan is a fighter and will tackle this head on with the support of his family."

Bickell bounced back and forth between the Hawks and their AHL affiliate in Rockford before he was traded along with Teuvo Teravainen last offseason to the Hurricanes for a pair of draft picks. Bickell has 66 goals in 391 career NHL games and has one in seven games with the Hurricanes this season.

Former Wild goaltender Josh Harding tried to continue playing with MS after being diagnosed in November 2012. Harding played in the playoffs against the Hawks later that season but played in just 29 games the next season before retiring in May 2015 because of complications brought on by the disease.

Bickell's path back to the ice will be a hard one — but one that is possible — and well wishes poured in for Bickell across social media.

"Thanks 2 all the fans for the prayers & wishes," Bickell tweeted. "It's all new 2 me & my family but seeing all the support from u guys makes it easier for us."

Bickell may no longer be a Hawk, but he was on their minds Friday.

"He has built so many lasting relationships in Chicago both inside and outside of the Blackhawks organization based on his play on the ice and character off of it," President John McDonough said. "Together, we will keep him in our thoughts during his fight against the disease."

Said captain Jonathan Toews: "What can you say? I think everyone in this room, in this organization, as close as we all are to Bicks, our hearts go out to him and wish him the best health possible. Hopefully he can hang in there and find ways to stay strong despite his condition.

"Obviously it's kind of crazy for him. He probably has a lot of people reaching out to him. I'm sure all the guys in this locker room who know him really well will reach out and send him a message and offer their support. It's pretty shocking but we're all thinking about him right now."

Twitter @ChristopherHine

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