by James Murphy, NHL.com
This coming Saturday, a group of current NHLers and AHLers, as well as some NHL alumni, will converge on Burnaby, British Columbia, to get together for some mid-summer shinny.
Andrew Ladd, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Hollweg, Gilbert Brule, Ben Walter and his father Ryan, who won the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, as well as many more will join Providence Bruins goaltender Jordan Sigalet for the Shutout MS 2007 charity game and fundraiser.
Of course summer charity games and fundraisers are nothing new in the hockey world, but for Sigalet, this event hits home more than others.
Three years ago, in March, 2004, the New Westminster, British Columbia, native was on top of the world. Playing for Bowling Green, he had just made 69 saves in back-to-back games as the Falcons earned a win and a tie against Northern Michigan to finish off the month of February and head into the March stretch run on a high note.
But the following morning, his foot was numb. The numbness spread and by the end of the day he had no feeling from the neck down. Throughout the day Sigalet had simply thought the numbness was the result of a playing injury, but at this point he realized something was not right.
“I just figured it was a pinched nerve or something,” he recalled recently. “It was like pins and needles at first in my feet, but then it just spread and got worse. By the end of the day, I was numb from the neck down and I knew things weren’t normal. I called my Mom and she told me to go checked immediately.”
So Sigalet contacted team physician Tom Wojciechowski, who then ran a series of tests on the baffled 23-year-old. They went to the hospital and ran even more tests, but Wojciechowski and the hospital doctors kept coming back to the same diagnosis, one Sigalet never thought of, because he simply didn’t know anything about it.
“They finally came back and I still figured they would just tell me it was going to be OK,” Sigalet said. “But then they said it wasn’t good and immediately I thought; ‘Oh my God, I’ve got cancer.’ My heart just dropped and I was just really scared.”
But Sigalet didn’t have cancer and he wasn’t diagnosed with a timetable on his life, as he feared. Instead, Sigalet was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a lifelong disease that affects the brain and spinal cord through inflammation of nerve endings.
MS creates lesions that can short-circuit the central nervous system, leading to a wide range of symptoms that could include vision loss, paralysis and disabling fatigue. The most prevalent form of MS is called relapsing/remitting and is characterized by an onset of symptoms followed by periods of good health. There is no way to predict when or why these symptoms will surface, how long they will last, or how long remission will continue.
“I was relieved it wasn’t cancer, but at the same time, I had no idea what MS was and what it meant to have it,” Sigalet said. “Not only did I not know anything about it, there is not a lot known out there about the disease. I mean they’ve made some progress and have medicine to treat it to an extent, but there’s still so much uncertainty surrounding the disease.”
The doctors seemed certain of one thing though and that was that Sigalet would have to give up hockey and his dream of one day playing in the NHL. MS takes a toll on the human stamina and body heat is a main trigger of symptoms, so strenuous physical activity could ignite symptoms and send a patient into remission. Therefore the doctors felt playing hockey, even recreationally, could be dangerous, let alone making a career of it.
But Sigalet, though initially scared, became determined to prove them wrong.
“After the initial shock, I immediately went to other doctors to get second and third opinions and so on,” he said. “They had diagnosed me right, but you want to be sure, because this is your life.”
But despite the numerous confirmations that he had MS, Sigalet still was determined to prove the doctors wrong and play. He only let the coaching staff and a limited number of players know that he was suffering from MS.
“I was scared it would screw up my chances of going pro and that no one would let me play or give me a chance,” said Sigalet, a 2001 draftee of the Boston Bruins.
Sigalet didn’t waste any time beginning his mission to prove the doctors wrong, as he was back on the ice two weeks after his first MS episode. Not only was he back playing, but he also managed to make 80 saves in two playoff games.
“I just wanted to get back on the ice as fast I could and see what I could do still,” Sigalet recalled. “When I realized I could still play, I decided I’d research as much as I could about MS and come with a system to live and play with.”
What Sigalet figured out, with the help of his family, specifically his brother and teammate Jonathan, was that he would need to maintain a better diet, rest as much as possible and maintain his body heat while playing or working out.
“I go through a lot of ice water, pouring it on my neck and stuff, as well as working out in air-conditioned or cool environments,” he pointed out. “It was tough at first and there’s still times when I’ll be out there and my hand will go numb as I’m playing, trying to hold the stick, but I’ve grown used to it and you work around it. I’m just happy to be playing.”
While doing the research, Sigalet also realized that being an athlete and in the public eye, meant he could help other MS patients, so he went public with his disease and later founded Shutout MS, a charity foundation dedicated to finding a cure for MS and helping those who suffer from the disease, live a normal life.
“I just figured if there was any chance to continue living my life normally and play, I would do it, and by doing that, I could also do something positive for other MS patients,” Sigalet said.
Sigalet would return to the ice for the Falcons the following season, going 16-12-3 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .915 save-percentage. He was invited to Bruins’ training camp the following fall and while he’s only played one minute in the NHL, he has amassed 34 wins in two seasons playing for Providence.
He will be in training camp again this September to try and fulfill his dream of becoming an NHL goaltender, but this Saturday he will continue to work on his other mission, and continue to show that despite the unpredictability of MS, those who suffer from it, can still live a normal life.
Sigalet and his foundation will put on the aforementioned charity game, which will then be followed by a dinner and auction. For more information, go to www.shutoutms.com.
“I just hope what I’m doing helps others deal with MS,” Sigalet said. “You can still live your life.”