When Wild goalie Josh Harding was first officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last month (read the Star Tribune’s story that will be in Thursday’s newspaper here), “I didn’t know anything about MS. I wish I did. Everybody hears about it, but nobody knows much about it unless you’re affected by it.”
That’s why Harding is so grateful to Wild doctor Dan Peterson and neurologist Jonathan Calkwood of the Schapiro Center for Multiple Sclerosis and the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology.
“I just can’t tell you how much both these doctors have gone above and beyond for me,” Harding said. “There’s no cure for it. It’ll be here the rest of my life. It’s something I’ve already accepted.”
Besides being provided with the basic education of the disease, Harding says Peterson is constantly a phone call away and “is just a great, great man” and that Calkwood has spent hours counseling him through every detail of treatment.
“There’s so much for myself to learn about MS,” Harding said. “I’ve already learned a lot, but there’s so much I want to learn.”
On Wednesday, Harding also made the difficult phone calls to inform Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo what he’s going through.
“I wanted to be the one to tell them,” Harding said. “And this will tell you what type of people these guys are. I didn’t know what to expect, how they’d react, if they’d be like, ‘What am I going to do? We’re going to have to get another goalie.’
“But not once did either talk about hockey. They were worried about my health. I don’t know. It was a really good feeling getting off the phone with both of them. When your GM and coach don’t look at the hockey side and are like, ‘Anything you need, just call,’ it was an awesome feeling.”
Fletcher said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Josh and his family following the news that he has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Josh’s competitive fire has led him to a successful career in the NHL and we know he will approach this new battle in the same manner.”
MS is “life changing,” Harding said, but he is thankful to his fiancee, Sara, who has been a rock at his side during episodes of fatigue and other symptoms. In fact, Sara is pregnant, meaning Josh is about to become a father for the first time.
“She knows I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me, and she’s kept strong,” Harding said. “I don’t know if she goes in the bathroom and cries or whatever, but she’s been amazing and if there’s anybody this has been toughest on, it’s Sara.”
He said his mom, Eileen, dad, Tim, sisters, Stephanie and Becky, his agent, Craig Oster, and Sara’s parents have been “amazing” throughout with their support.
Harding said a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders Wednesday when he spent morning to night calling friends because he didn’t want them to find out of his diagnosis in Thursday’s Star Tribune.
He said when he was first diagnosed, he didn’t know if he should tell anybody. Then when he’d be in conversations with friends, whether he should tell them would be running through his head, and essentially, he didn’t act like himself for weeks.
He had been skating with fellow locked-out players here in town. Suddenly, he disappeared for no reason for six weeks. I had gotten an inkling that he had a neck injury, but he had been seen out in public, like Timberwolves games, so I didn’t bother him. That’s what his teammates were told, too.
“But to miss six weeks with a neck injury, I don’t know if any of the boys bought it,” Harding said.
Suddenly after being cleared two weeks ago, he returned to Mariucci for skates. But he would leave the ice with no reason after 45 minutes because he didn’t want to push it. Teammates knew something was up and said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but at least you’re OK.”
On Wednesday, Harding began to call those teammates. Cal Clutterbuck even said to him, “We knew something was up. We just didn’t know what.”
Harding talked to buddies like Niklas Backstrom, Kyle Brodziak, Darroll Powe, Tom Gilbert, Mikko Koivu.
Remember, Harding’s been in the Wild organization his entire pro career. Drafted in 2002, this is a guy who actually played in Houston during the last lockout with Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Stephane Veilleux. He signed a three-year, $5.7 million deal this past summer to stay here in Minnesota.
“I needed to call these guys and let them hear this from me,” Harding said. “They’re my family. People are a little worried, but once I explain everything, everybody has been incredible.
“I tried to hide it for this long and that was tough enough. It’s time to let everybody know and get it out, but I wanted to get back on the ice and make sure I was good first. I’m happy with the direction I’m going. But there’s still a mental game. You let a goal in and you wonder, ‘Would I have let that in eight months ago?’”
As I mentioned in the story, Harding got a huge emotional lift when teammates who still didn’t know what Harding had been dealing with were amazed that after six weeks off, he didn’t miss a beat.
Now he wants to tell his story to 1) get it out so it’s a distraction right now rather than if the season starts and it gets out then; 2) tell everybody that he will not allow MS end his career; 3) be a positive example for those afflicted with MS.
Dr. Peterson says there are 25,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year. MS usually hits people between ages 18-40, more women than men. The cause of MS is not known, but some say it’s genetics, some say it’s activated from virus, Peterson says.
Harding does have an uncle with MS.
“Thirty percent have a second episode in a year, 20 percent may take 2-5 years. It bodes well that we got on it right away before he got into a cycle of getting run down or his immune system flaring up. Maybe he never has another episode.”
Doctors are treating Harding’s case real aggressively with medication in an attempt to make sure no new lesions develop.
There is “no doubt” in Harding’s mind he can play hockey despite MS.
“The way I feel right now, my attitude, the pressure I put on myself to succeed, the support group I have with my awesome doctors and my incredible family, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Harding said.
“Nobody thought I’d come back from a torn ACL and MCL as a goalie. I feel good out there. I feel I can compete. I feel like I’m seeing the puck good. Craig [Oster] even said, with the knee, I was farther behind. That was nine, 10 months. This is five, six weeks, and now I’m back at it. I’m way ahead.”
WHAT IS MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially debilitating disease in which your body's immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers your nerves. This interferes with the communication between your brain and the rest of your body. Ultimately, this may result in deterioration of the nerves themselves, a process that's not reversible.
Symptoms vary widely, depending on the amount of damage and which nerves are affected. People with severe cases of multiple sclerosis may lose the ability to walk or speak. Multiple sclerosis can be difficult to diagnose early in the course of the disease because symptoms often come and go — sometimes disappearing for months.
There's no cure for multiple sclerosis. However treatments can help treat attacks, modify the course of the disease and treat symptoms.
Also, in Wild news, defenseman Clayton Stoner has signed with Banska Bystrica in Slovakia. He leaves Thursday. He becomes the third Wild locked-out player playing elsewhere and my suspicion is there will soon be more. Jared Spurgeon is playing for the SCL Tigers in Switzerland and Devin Setoguchi is playing for the Ontario Reign in California.
Mikko Koivu is back in the States after a short stint with Turku in Finland. He's in Anaheim on vacation right now.