Multiple sclerosis gave Silvertips' goalie coach new purpose
The next moment he was face down on the ice, motionless, with the team's medical staff rushing to his side and anxious teammates gathering around. He would be taken away on a stretcher and would spend weeks in rehabilitation just to walk normally again.
Injuries are routine in a violent game such as hockey, but this was different. Sigalet had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years earlier and his fall in that 2007 game — he became too hot in his heavy goaltending gear, exacerbating his symptoms and causing his legs to buckle; he was knocked unconscious when his head hit the ice — was a cruel reminder that MS is a sly, insidious disease with no compassion and, as yet, no cure.
It is also the illness that effectively ended Sigalet's playing career, although on that count at least there is a silver lining.
The 29-year-old Sigalet, a native of Cloverdale, B.C., is beginning his first season as the goalie coach for the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips. Disappointing as it is to know that he probably never will play again, Sigalet is excited to be going forward in coaching.
“I love working with kids of all ages,” he said. “I'm trying to take what I've learned and help those kids reach their dreams. So this is definitely fulfilling.
“Coaching is almost more nerve-wracking (than being a player) because you're sitting up in the stands watching these guys play. Half the time you want to be out there (playing again), but you also want to see the kids you're working with do well. I want them to experience what I did, even for just that short time.”
Sigalet played four years at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Near the end of his junior season, he awoke one morning with a prickly feeling in his right foot, which lasted the entire day. The next morning the sensation had spread to his legs and torso.
“I thought I'd pinched a nerve in my back or something like that,” he said, but subsequent medical tests instead revealed lesions on his brain and spine — the telltale indicators of MS.
“I was 23 at the time and a college athlete,” Sigalet said. “You feel invincible. So I didn't accept it right away. I thought it was misdiagnosed.”
He wanted other opinions, which meant more procedures. “But all the tests kept coming back to MS,” he said. “It was frustrating. And scary.”
In time, his symptoms receded. Sigalet returned to play his senior season at Bowling Green and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy. After leaving school, he signed with the NHL's Boston Bruins and spent the next three seasons splitting time between Boston and the team's AHL affiliate in Providence.
In Boston he stayed mostly on the bench, playing only one minute in one game when starting goalie Andrew Raycroft was injured in the waning seconds against Tampa Bay, Fla.
“It was just at the end of the game, but it was pretty cool to be out there in an NHL game,” Sigalet said. “I didn't even get (to stop) a shot, but I got in there and it was an unbelievable feeling.”
His final season was spent in Europe in 2008-09, first in Russia and then in Austria. He wanted another crack at the NHL, but the problem was “finding a team that believed in me. I knew I could still play, but there were a lot of teams that saw me as a liability.
“The first thing anyone sees if they Google my name is Jordan Sigalet, who has MS,” he said. “It's just the tag I have now. It's become like my middle name. And it overshadowed my skills and my whole hockey game.”
After sitting out last season, Sigalet had a chance to return to Europe this year. But after getting married in 2009 and buying a home in Blaine, he decided it was time to pursue coaching.
He contacted the Silvertips and was hired two months ago as a part-time goalie coach. He will be at most of this season's home games and practices, as well as road games in lower British Columbia.
These days his most common symptom is a slight numbness in his hands, which increases in either very cold or very warm conditions. He also is prone to fatigue, which he addresses with occasional naps and, whenever possible, an early bedtime.
In addition, he receives three injections a week, which he administers himself in either his stomach, arm or thigh.
“Right after this happened, it was ‘Why me?' Maybe for the first couple of months,” Sigalet said. “And even now when I have a bad day, sure, it's frustrating. But there are so many diseases out there and I see people who are a lot worse off than myself. I'm just thankful it's not anything else.
“My life hasn't changed that much,” he said. “It's pretty normal.”
Silvertips head coach Craig Hartsburg said he views Sigalet mostly as someone with a keen ambition to succeed in coaching.
“So far with us he's been great,” Hartsburg said. “He works extremely hard, he's very knowledgeable and he has a good demeanor with all goaltenders. So I don't look at him that he's got this problem.
“But then when you take a step back, you say, ‘Oh, there's a lot of battles he has to go through.' He's obviously been very courageous, but he wants to continue on with a normal life and with this goal he has to be a great goalie coach.”
Sigalet knows he will never escape the dark cloud of MS, but therein he has found a purpose. His disease is an impediment, not a hopeless barrier, and he wants to prove that people with afflictions can live full and meaningful lives.
“Not everyone with MS can play hockey,” he said, “but if you want something bad enough, you can do it as long as you have the right people and the right support in your life.”
There is, he admits, uncertainty about his future. Although his MS is considered mild, there is no way of knowing how much function he will have in his legs and arms, say, 10 or 20 years from now.
“I just take it day by day,” said Sigalet, who hopes to coach in the NHL someday. “That's a cliche, but it's kind of how you have to live your life. No one knows what's going to happen tomorrow, so you just try to stay positive. And if you have a bad day, you hope you get back to normal and have a good day the next day.”
Sigalet isn't worried about hitting a golf ball in his later years because “I can't hit one now,” he said with a laugh. “But I expect to be like any other 50- or 60-year-old, just doing the things I like to do.
“And if worse comes to worse, and if I'm in a wheelchair, I'll be playing sled hockey or maybe golfing in my wheelchair. I'll find a way to do those things and make the best of what I have.”
Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord caused by lesions that impair the transmission of nerve cell signals. Symptoms are varied and can be anywhere from severe to mild, meaning that no two people are afflicted in quite the same way.
Information about Jordan Sigalet, who does dozens of speaking engagements every year to discuss his life in hockey and his disease, can be found on his website, www.shutoutms.com.
Sigalet also helps operate a goalie school and development center called Performance Goalie School. The website is www.progoal.com.
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