Sigalet’s mind flashed back almost exactly eight years, when in the midst of a standout senior season at Bowling Green State University he announced he had been diagnosed with MS, an incurable, unpredictable disease that attacks the central nervous system, affecting everything from vision, hearing and memory, to balance, mobility and fatigue.
Now a goaltending coach with the Abbotsford Heat in the American Hockey League, Sigalet waited nine months to tell the world he had the disease. Harding went public two months after his diagnosis, revealing his upcoming battle through excellent Wild beat writer Michael Russo and articles in both the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper and a separate blog on the website.
“It definitely brings me back to when I was diagnosed, especially reading some of the stuff he said, just about the weight that has been lifted off his shoulders since he went public and the support he’s got,” Sigalet said from his home in Blaine, Washington. “I can relate to those feelings. It’s so nice to finally tell people what you have been going through and have people support you in positive way. It makes the diagnosis so much easier.”
“It definitely changes your perspective on life,” Sigalet continued. “It always sounds so cliché to hear people say ‘live each day at a time,’ but with MS it’s kind of how you have to live your life because it is so different with everybody. You don’t really know what lies ahead of you, so a lot of it comes down to having a positive attitude. The roller-coaster ride you go through in a hockey career almost prepares you for the ups and downs of the disease. There are many days and weeks and months you will go without even knowing you have it, sometimes even longer.”
Now is clearly not that time for Harding, but Sigalet liked what he was reading from the Wild stopper, who pledged not to let MS get in the way of his goal of being a No.1 in the NHL and winning a Stanley Cup in Minnesota.
“I think he’ll use it as I did, use it as fire,” Sigalet said. “I got so motivated every day just to prove this disease was wrong and keep plugging along.”
Sigalet seemed to plug along just fine after his diagnosis. He missed just one game, and after his mid-season revelation finished his NCAA career as a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the top college player. His comeback was nominated for an ESPY, and his story was featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health.
Now Sigalet is back in the spotlight as the person best equipped to explain to people – including Harding himself, who indicated through mutual friends that he’d like to talk – what the Wild goalie is about to go through.
The good news is Sigalet insists MS did not end his career.
The bad news is the way NHL teams viewed his disease may have, especially after Sigalet collapsed during an AHL game in 2007 and had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher and hospitalized.
Selected by the Boston Bruins in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL Draft, Sigalet played three full seasons with their AHL affiliate in Providence, including a call up in his rookie year that included 10 games on the bench and 43 seconds of relief duty. It would be his only taste of NHL action.
Sigalet, who is originally from the Vancouver suburbs, went overseas the following season, playing briefly in Russia before settling in Austria. He retired in the summer of 2009 to pursue coaching despite offers to return to Europe. Looking back, he believes the earlier lack of decent NHL offers had a lot to do with that on-ice collapse.
“If that didn’t happen there probably would have been a better contract in front of me somewhere,” he said. “It didn’t end things on my side, but maybe how other people viewed me. It was a big thing when I collapsed.”
The irony is the most severe part of the collapse was hitting his head on the ice, and it’s cause could be linked to not wanting to show weakness others might have linked to MS, a lesson Sigalet says Harding can benefit from.
“Leading up to that day I collapsed there were red flags,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling very good, I was battling a cold and under the weather, but I was stubborn and pushed through. Looking back, I should have just taken a day off. That comes with learning your body and knowing your limits and that’s something you learn through the course of the disease.”
Sigalet didn’t take that day off because he worried what others might think, but believes Harding can handle MS while playing at the NHL level.
“It’s a disease you can manage,” said Sigalet, who started aggressive treatments soon after his diagnosis in the spring of 2004 – after experiencing numbness in his limbs following back-to-back games – and still injects himself with medication three times a week. “That one big setback I had with the collapse in Providence is really the only major thing that happened to me, and in March it is going to be nine years since I was diagnosed.”
Managing the attention that comes with the diagnosis is another matter.
Sigalet talked about “having the middle name MS,” about it being the first thing that comes up when you Google his name, and now being the first person reporters call when another member of the goalie union is diagnosed. His phone wasn’t ringing off the hook to talk about his role in the Heat being the AHL’s toughest team to score against, or balancing the dreaded three-goalie rotation while helping three guys who couldn’t play more different styles to all excel.
“The MS diagnosis overshadowed who I was as a person, as a goalie, which was hard at times, not so much now but especially when I was playing,” he said. “You could have a Barry Brust shutout streak going and they are only going to talk about your MS. That was hard to hear. But then I started to look at it like anyone who is going to read that might look a little more into what MS is and maybe start supporting the cause. Every time someone wrote about the diagnosis, it did create some awareness, or maybe when someone else was diagnosed they weren’t in the dark.”
It would have made it easier for Sigalet when he was first diagnosed to have a puck-stopping peer, or even another professional athlete, to relate and talk to. Now maybe he can be that person for Harding.
“I played for five years after being diagnosed and my diagnosis had nothing to do with me retiring,” Sigalet said. “One of the biggest symptoms of MS is fatigue, so getting your rest when you need it is important, and as a pro hockey player obviously you take pretty good care of your body as it is and live a pretty healthy lifestyle. So he’s got that to his advantage and a postive attitude on top of that. I think he’s going to be just fine.”