MS gives Wild's Harding greater perspective
From the minute he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Josh Harding has kept a positive outlook on everything. On his family, on hockey, on life.
It put a lot of things into a new light for the 28-year-old Minnesota Wild goalie when he received the news this fall that he had MS. The lengthy NHL lockout, which threatened to take away an entire season from Harding and the rest of the league's players, suddenly didn't seem like such a big deal anymore. The things in Harding's life that were important before his diagnosis — the close friendships with his Wild teammates, his relationship with his parents, the new baby he and his fiancee, Sara Roessler, are expecting — became even more significant.
The return to the ice means a return to normalcy for Harding. He's back in the locker room at Xcel Energy Center, joking with the guys and not worrying about MS. He's once again playing the sport he started as a 4-year-old growing up in Saskatchewan.
As he gets back on the ice and back in net for the Wild, Harding hopes his MS diagnosis isn't how fans define him.
"I hope that the one thing they say to me is he's a family guy and he's a good friend. I'm hoping that's what people say," Harding said in an exclusive interview with FOX Sports North on the eve of his return to the ice — a 1-0 shutout of the Dallas Stars. "I don't know if that's what people say. A good teammate, a good friend, a good family member. Those are the most important things in my life. I'd probably be pretty upset if it was any other way."
A positive outlook
Multiple sclerosis is defined as a disease in which the body's immune system "eats away at the protective sheath that covers your nerves," according to the Mayo Clinic website. No known cure for MS exists, but a variety of treatments can help minimize symptoms.
Harding doesn't care to elaborate on exactly what type of treatments he's using to fight the disease, but he remains encouraged with his progress.
"We're not too sure how it's all going to, in a year's time, in four years' time, in 10 years' time, or in a month, we don't really know how everything's going to go," Harding said. "I really think that we're on the right track. If I keep going like this, there should be no problem."
Though Harding is optimistic MS will not change the type of person he is, there were loved ones to whom he had to break the news. The hardest conversation of all was with his parents, Tim and Eileen.
"It's tough telling anybody that, let alone your parents," Harding said. "People say that their parents are their heroes. . . . That's an understatement to my parents. They've done up and above anything any parent could do. . . . They were always so involved. I wouldn't even be remotely close to where I am right now if it wasn't for them."
It wasn't easy telling Wild coach Mike Yeo or general manager Chuck Fletcher, either. What would they think of their goalie? Would they be worried about his future with the team?
But the response Harding received from both Yeo and Fletcher was nothing but supportive. They didn't care about how Josh Harding the goalie was doing. They were more concerned about Josh Harding the person.
"I didn't know how they were going to react. I didn't know if they were going to wonder what they were going to do with their goalie situation, what's going to go on here," Harding said. "It was the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders when they never once mentioned hockey. It was, ‘How are you feeling? What can we do to help?' "
Since the diagnosis, Harding has said he doesn't want people to feel bad for him or feel sorry that he was unlucky enough to have this disease during the prime of his hockey career. There was never much of a "Why me?" moment for Harding.
From the time the doctors told him he had MS, his approach was forward-thinking, wanting to know what he could do to best fight the disease.
"I'd be lying if I said I took everything great," Harding said. "The first couple days were hard, but in my position right now, I have no time to sit back and feel sorry for myself."
Instead, Harding spent the lockout skating with other NHL players, including many Wild teammates, at local rinks in the Twin Cities. The lockout also afforded him more time with Roessler and her 5-year-old son, Talen. Harding and Talen have grown close, often playing knee hockey or watching movies.
Soon, Harding will have a child of his own, and he hopes to emulate the relationship Harding has with his own parents.
"He's an amazing father figure and dad, so I'm not worried about him one bit," Roessler said. "With Talen, they play all the time. They're best friends. He just looks up to him so much, and the baby will be the exact same way. He's just a very caring person, and he has the hugest heart."
Having a little one of his own in the house will be a different story for Harding. There will be plenty of diapers to change and restless nights with a crying baby. But there is so much more that Harding looks forward to.
When Harding talks about expecting his first child, he lights up.
"I haven't been this excited for something in a long time, especially with all the stuff that's going on in my life," Harding said. "I can't wait until March to have a little one of my own. We're really excited."
Harding tries not to look too far ahead. He knows hockey is here now, and a newborn baby will arrive soon after the start of the season. In summer 2014, he and Roessler will get married in Harding's hometown.
After that, Harding said he doesn't know what the future holds.
"I don't know how this MS thing is going to turn out. I really don't," he said. "But I'm never going to stop loving these people. It doesn't matter what's going on. Family's family, and that's one thing I've always prided myself on is how important family is. . . . You've got to take the good things with the bad and make the good things out of bad, too. Whether it be five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, it's not going to change my outlook on my family."
Back in action
On Saturday, Harding finally was back on the ice with his hockey family as Minnesota hosted the Colorado Avalanche to begin the lockout-shortened season. Harding served as backup goalie in the Wild's 4-2 victory. Fittingly, the season began on Hockey Day in Minnesota.
Because the lockout lasted all the way into January, NHL teams will play only 48 games this year. Since he's splitting time with Niklas Backstrom, Harding may play in only half of those games, perhaps even fewer. A year ago, he made 30 starts in Minnesota's 82 games.
But Harding knows the number of games he plays, the number of saves he makes or the number of games the Wild win aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things. For better or worse, MS has reinforced to Harding that there are bigger things in life than hockey.
"I love playing hockey. I love being a goalie. But especially with everything that's happened to me, you realize the really, really important things in life," Harding said. "We're playing a game. If I'm really going to be honest, it's a sport; it's a game. Family, friends, the relationships I get with the teammates that turn into really good friends, that's what I take out of all this. Hockey is fun, but family is love."
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