Wild G Josh Harding wins NHL’s Masterton Trophy

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Josh Harding wasn’t sure if he would be able to continue his NHL career last summer when he was shook by the news that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Harding wasn’t sure of a lot of things. But he knew he wanted to keep playing hockey.

He had just signed a new three-year contract with the Minnesota Wild and with the support of the organization and his teammates, Harding worked to return to the team. He got himself in shape and was on Minnesota’s opening night roster last season.

“I don’t know if I ever really wanted to quit. I found out about the diagnosis in August and it hit me hard. Right away I knew I had to do something to kind of get back at it and find out what would work for me. During the year I had that tough stretch. But I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I was going to give up or anything like that. Fortunately for myself, I had a great group around me that supported me that was always there for me.”

Less than a year after his diagnoses, Harding was honored as this year’s winner of the Masterton Memorial Trophy on Friday, given annually to the player that best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“All year was a battle, a lot of ups and downs,” Harding said on the NHL Network broadcast of the awards Friday. “I couldn’t thank (enough) the people that have supported me and been on my team since I got diagnosed. It starts off with the whole Wild organization believing in me, and just the teammates and the fans, everybody, my family especially. Everybody had a part in this and I couldn’t be more honored.”

Harding’s battle with MS — a disease that attacks the protective lining of the nerves — was constant. A second-round draft pick by the Wild in 2002, Harding missed nearly three months in the middle of the season as he adjusted to a change in medication and returned to start each of Minnesota’s five playoff games after Niklas Backstrom left with an injury in pregame warmups prior to Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Harding had a 2.94 goals-against average and .911 saves percentage in the playoffs after playing just five regular season games with a 1-1 record, 3.24 goals-against and .863 save percentage.

As he has since he was diagnosed, Harding was appreciative of the organization and his teammates.

“The teammates might have been the most impressive thing out of this, how they treated me the exact same,” Harding said. “I talked to a lot of them and told them about MS. And the way they responded, how they kept treating me the exact same way as they did before, it meant a lot to me. I didn’t want to be that guy, to be in the dressing room or on the plane on in the hotel that everybody’s kind of cautious on what they said. It says so much about this team’s chemistry and character and I could not be more proud to be a member of the Minnesota Wild.”

Harding, who could be in line as a starter for the Wild next season with Backstrom unsigned, said after the season ended that he felt good and doctors believe they have discovered the right course of treatment and medication.

“That’s why I missed time this year and the playoffs,” Harding said after the season. “It obviously was a big curveball thrown at myself. It took a lot of learning to cope with it and get the medications right. It did take a while, definitely happy with where I am right now and we’ll be even more dialed in next year.”

Harding has started a charity to support MS called “Harding’s Hope.”  And he is focused on an important summer of conditioning and being in the right spot physically to help the team next season.

The trophy is named after former North Stars player Bill Masterton, who died during a game in 1968 as a result of head injuries. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Boston’s Adam McQuaid were the other finalists. Harding’s award marks the first time a Wild player has won the award. He was the first player in team history nominated as a finalist for the Masterton Trophy.

It’s the first time a Wild players has won an NHL award that is voted on. Jacques Lemaire won the Jack Adams award, given to the league’s top coach, in 2003.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Friday that Minnesota center Mikko Koivu finished 17th in voting for the Selke Trophy, which is given to the league’s best defensive forward and was won by Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. The Wild’s Zach Parise and Jason Pominville also earned votes for the Selke.

Minnesota’s Ryan Suter is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s best defenseman, which will be announced Saturday. But reports have said Montreal’s P.K. Subban has won the award.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter