Last March, shortly after Bowling Green was swept in a best-of-three Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoff, the Falcons' all-conference junior goalie, Jordan Sigalet, sat by his locker wondering whether his promising career was over. Two weeks earlier he had learned he had multiple sclerosis, an inflammation of nerve fibers that affects the central nervous system and can cause fatigue, numbness, vision loss or, in severe cases, paralysis.
Sigalet, who played despite feelings of numbness throughout his body, had told only his family, coaches and a couple of teammates about the diagnosis. "I was waiting to see if my body would be O.K.," says Sigalet, a seventh-round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2001 NHL draft. "I was hoping to make it through a hockey game again."
Sigalet spent the summer at his parents' home in Surrey, B.C., working out with a trainer, seeing doctors and also taking injections three times a week to stabilize his immune system. Because certain foods may trigger symptoms of MS, he changed his eating habits to all but eliminate red meat, dairy products and foods with artificial sweeteners. The result: This season he's done much more than merely make it through a hockey game again.
Through Sunday the 23-year-old senior had started 25 of 28 games, had a terrific .921 save percentage--and had emerged as a candidate to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey. Last weekend he made 68 saves as overmatched Bowling Green (13-11-4) hung close in a pair of 3-2 road losses to seventh-ranked Ohio State.
"He's our leader," says coach Scott Paluch. "He's an inspiration for our team and even for players on other teams."
The 6-foot, 172-pound Sigalet, whose career save percentage of .916 is the best in school history, was inspiring the Falcons before he went public with his disease in December. After last season teammates named him captain, the first goalie to fill that post at Bowling Green. Upon announcing he had MS, Sigalet received broad support. Nebraska-Omaha players sent him a signed jersey; those from Michigan and Boston College sent signed cards. "That means so much to know you can touch other people," says Sigalet, who sells HOPE bracelets, similar to Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG bracelets, to benefit MS research.
Doctors don't know what led to Sigalet's MS--there's no history of it in his family--but fatigue can make one more vulnerable to the disease. Sigalet led the nation last year in minutes played (2,210) and saves (1,140). He stopped 66 total shots in games against Northern Michigan on Feb. 27 and 28, and on the 29th he woke with numbness in his left leg. "I figured I slept on it wrong," he says. "But the numbness kept spreading. Soon it was from the neck down."
That next day Sigalet underwent a brain scan and a spinal tap that revealed his condition. He missed one game--the team announced he had the flu--and then returned to the ice even though he could hardly feel a stick in his hand or a puck in his glove.
Those symptoms have mostly disappeared, though Sigalet--who naps often, skips a practice each week and still takes regular injections--has numbness in his hands. He's taking six classes this semester to graduate with a degree in computer animation in the spring, and he often must stop taking notes because he's weary from gripping his pen.
Still, as a top Bruins prospect, Sigalet is intent on reaching the NHL. "Jordan doesn't want people's sympathy," says brother Jonathan, a Bowling Green teammate. "He wants to take away people's fears about the disease."
Besides Jordan Sigalet, here are four top contenders for the Hobey Baker Award (stats through Sunday). Ten finalists will be announced next month.
COLIN MURPHY, Michigan Tech, forward, senior
Superb playmaker leads NCAA with 36 assists in 29 games
MARTY SERTICH, Colorado College, center, junior
He's tops in the nation with 58 points for the No. 2 Tigers
BRETT STERLING (above right), Colorado College, left wing, junior
Scrapper has 52 points, 14 power-play goals, five game-winners
TUOMAS TARKKI, Northern Michigan, goalie, senior
The 6'4" Finn has a .934 save percentage and three shutouts
BLOCKING IT OUT
Despite numbness in his hands, Sigalet had started all but three games.
JEREMY WADSWORTH/THE BLADE/AP (INSET)
[See caption above.]
DAVID BITTON/THE GAZETTE (STERLING)