ST. PAUL, Minn. — Josh Harding said he couldn’t sleep well Saturday night knowing he would be in net Sunday for the Minnesota Wild during the second game of a back-to-back to open the season.
Harding has played 118 games in the NHL. Nervousness like he was experiencing shouldn’t be present in a seven-year veteran.
But Sunday wasn’t just any start for Harding. It was his first time back as Minnesota’s starting goaltender since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last summer. Earning his seventh career shutout with 24 saves in a 1-0 win against the Dallas Stars was secondary to the triumph of being back on the ice.
“It feels good right now,” Harding said. “It was a long-time coming here. It’s been a tough couple months here, and this made it all worth it. I can’t thank the team enough for having my back. They made some great plays, played great out there and made my job a lot easier.”
Harding wasn’t sure if he would be back in this position when doctors told him he had MS following a series of tests because he was feeling dizzy. The disease, which attacks the body’s immune system and specifically the lining of the nerves, can affect balance, vision and stamina. Harding didn’t know what the future held, but after signing a three-year, $5.7 million contract he wanted to keep playing.
“When you get told about it, there are some doubts,” he said. “I’d be completely lying to you if I didn’t say that. The way that doctor (Jonathan) Calkwood and doctor (Dan) Peterson have helped me along, words can’t describe what they’ve done for me. I’m not kidding — I don’t think I’d be here without those two guys.
“They’ve kind of saved me, and they made me believe. And then it also goes back to the team and the management — they helped me believe in myself, and it’s just a really exciting time for myself.”
Harding felt he had to prove to Minnesota he could be relied on, and the perseverance of Harding and the support of his teammates, coaching staff and front office paid off Sunday. Zach Parise scored his first goal as a member of the Wild, and Harding was strong in net against Dallas, which scored four goals in its season opener on Saturday.
Harding made two critical saves in the waning minutes to keep his shutout intact.
“We’re very happy for him,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “This is something most of us cannot understand, what he’s going through and what he’s been through lately. Again, he’s just had an amazing attitude about this and we’re just really happy for him.”
In the lockout-condensed season, the Wild will need Harding; the 1B option in goal to Minnesota starter Niklas Backstrom’s 1A. With many back-to-backs and an intensive road schedule, Harding will be relied on as heavily as he ever has been after playing a career-high 34 games last season.
Harding said he appreciates the support he’s received from the organization, and that support was never in question as far as Yeo was concerned.
“He’s a guy that gives his all every day,” Yeo said. “His attitude has been unbelievable. I’ve got no concerns. We owe it to him to have this opportunity. He’s earned it. We didn’t give anything to him. He earned it.”
Harding’s teammates were confident in their goalie, too. During the lockout, Parise was one of the many players who skated with Harding in impromptu practices around town.
“I was curious, but I wasn’t nervous for him,” Parise said. “He’s been playing great. So I can’t say I’m surprised with how well he played. He’s been looking good for a while.”
There are many more games to go for Harding, but Sunday proved he’s able to help the Wild and was a good first step after a tough few months.
“I can’t predict the future,” Harding said. “I can only control what goes on day to day, and I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that I’m ready to go and it was just a great feeling coming out here and backstopping the team to a win.”