CHICAGO – Josh Harding has a leg injury. That much we know.
How severe? Hard to tell. It’s playoff time so the Wild would rather keep that information a secret.
But Harding is a tough cookie and he wasn’t about to let a “lower-body injury” keep him out of the net Thursday night with the Wild on the brink of elimination. This guy refused to put his hockey career on hiatus after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last fall. Or when complications caused him to miss 33 games.
So with the Wild facing a goalie quandary before a win-or-else Game 5 against the Blackhawks, Harding declared himself fit to play.
“We don’t know how he feels, but you have to trust him,” coach Mike Yeo said before the game. “And he says that he is good to go and there was absolutely no doubt about it, so that’s what we were looking for.”
Harding left Game 4 after one period with what looked like a left leg injury. A collision with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews didn’t look particularly horrific, but it knocked Harding out of the game, leaving his status for Game 5 up in the air. We should have known better than to count him out. He’s been through much worse than this.
Harding’s perseverance in the face of an incurable disease continues to serve as a true inspiration for those affected by multiple sclerosis. Harding undoubtedly recognizes the significance and scope of the impact he’s made on MS awareness. But he wants to save that discussion for another time and place.
For now, he wants to be recognized as just another hockey player competing in the NHL playoffs. That, he says, remains his sole focus and everything else can wait until after the Wild’s season ends. He declines comment on all health-related questions and has not spoken publicly about his fight since mid-April when he discussed his refusal to put his career on hold.
“You’ve been playing hockey all your life and to let something come in the way of it, you usually don’t — you’ll find a way to make it happen,” he said. “You can’t predict the future, but I think everybody in my position would do the same thing.”
The outpouring of support arrives in daily reminders. The Wild has received interview requests from People Magazine, CNN and various other national media outlets. E-mails and fan mail addressed to Harding flood the team’s inbox every week.
And then there’s 7-year-old Cody Saleen, who met Harding at an autograph signing in February. Harding signed Cody’s goalie stick, poster and two pucks. The two posed for pictures.
On the drive home, Cody’s dad, Chuck, asked his young son what he thought.
“This is the best day of my life,” Cody said.
Cody had heard about Harding’s illness, though the full picture is impossible for a second-grader to comprehend. Cody’s mother, Nikki, went online and printed out information about multiple sclerosis to share with Cody.
“Just so he knew what Harding is going through,” Nikki said.
Cody’s response made his parents’ heart swell.
“Cody was concerned about Harding and he asked if there was anything he could do to help,” Nikki said.
The family brainstormed and this past Sunday, Cody participated in a Walk MS event in Harding’s honor. Cody helped raise $300 from family and friends to donate to the MS Society, though the youngster initially wanted to give his money directly to Harding.
“He’s my favorite player,” Cody said.
This is Harding’s impact and the attention he can bring to his disease. Anna Kucera, public relations director for the Upper Midwest Chapter of the MS Society, said Harding has indicated a desire to take an active role in raising awareness once his season concludes.
“I think it’s incredibly inspiring for people who are familiar with MS, who are part of the MS community and for young people as well to know that there is somebody who is performing at a very high level in spite of a chronic disease,” Kucera said.