Wild's Harding starts battle with MS

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 12:13 AM

The 28-year-old Wild goalie is refusing to let the disease define him and plans to turn the diagnosis into an inspirational success story.

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Wild goalie Josh Harding.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Sitting on a white leather couch in the living room of his Edina home, Josh Harding doesn't get emotional as he tells his story.

He looks completely healthy. He doesn't seem scared. He speaks so confidently, so courageously, you'd never know his life has been altered forever.

"I don't look at this like I've got to take a new path," said Harding, drafted 10 years ago by the Wild and months off signing a new three-year contract. "This is a little bump in the road. I've had lots in life."

Harding, 28, has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an incurable autoimmune disease in which the body randomly attacks and eats away the protective lining of his nerves and causes them to scar. It causes problems with balance, fatigue and blurred vision. There are 25,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States every year.

"I had a couple days where I felt bad for myself, but no more," said Harding, who plans on continuing his career. "There's things in life that happen. Sometimes you can't explain it. You deal with it."

After keeping the disease private from everyone other than his immediate family for more than a month, Harding began calling friends Wednesday. He spoke to nearly every one of his teammates. He called Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo.

"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," Fletcher said.

And Harding has made clear that MS will not end his career.

"There's going to be some good days and bad days, but I think if you talk to anybody in life, there's going to be some good days and bad days," Harding said.

Discovery and treatment

It started with a tweak in his neck. That evolved into dizziness, seeing black spots and numbness in his right leg.

"I just knew that something wasn't right," Harding said. "Honestly, I hadn't felt normal for a bit."

It was Sept. 27, and Harding went in for a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test on his neck. Wild doctor Dan Peterson noticed an abnormality and summoned Harding back to his Edina practice for an MRI of his brain.

Peterson discovered lesions and called Harding back to his office that night.

"I told him I thought it was MS, and he wasn't like, 'Woe is me,'" Peterson said. "He's like, 'What do we do? Tell me how to go forward.'"

Over the next few weeks, Harding underwent a battery of tests to rule out other afflictions. He met with neurologist Jonathan Calkwood of the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, whom Peterson calls the "MS guru." Peterson's diagnosis was confirmed.

For six weeks, as Harding tried to gain control of the disease with the support of his parents, Tim and Eileen, sisters Stephanie and Becky, and his fiancée, Sara, Harding didn't work out. He didn't show up to skate with fellow locked-out players, who grew worried.

He has been put on an aggressive treatment of medication in order to prevent new lesions and thus further episodes of "immune system flareup."

"It bodes well that we got on it right away before he got into a cycle of getting run down," Peterson said. "Maybe he never has another episode. Seventy percent of people with MS still go on to live long, productive, fulfilling lives. And from the first day, Josh hasn't lost that 'I'm going to kick its butt' attitude, so he can do this. There's no doubt he can keep playing."

Two weeks ago, Harding was cleared to skate again.

"The [other players] said after six weeks off, I didn't look out of place, which was big for me to hear," Harding said.

'I don't want people moping'

Harding has decided to tell his story for two selfless reasons.

The first is he is still optimistic the NHL lockout will end in time to have a shortened season.

"I'm a team-first guy," Harding said. "If we play a 41- or 60-game season, you lose seven in a row, you're not going to catch up. Let the distraction be now rather than when we're on a four-game road trip, we need to win and all of a sudden it leaks out."

Harding also wants to create awareness and be an example for those suffering with MS. He's already considering a charitable foundation.

"Even if it changes one person's life to show that I'm not letting this come between me and my goals, that would be awesome," Harding said.

Still, Harding can't seem to catch a break. He's endured the physical toll of hip surgery and reconstructive knee surgery, the emotional toll of losing close friends Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien in 2011.

"Still here though. Still here," Harding said, smiling. "You can let it get you down for a bit, but you've got to move past it. I know what my overall goal is to be, and that's a No. 1 goalie of the Minnesota Wild and to win a Stanley Cup here. It would make me happy to overcome this. Not just overcome this, but to really succeed with it.

"I don't want people treating me different, I don't want people feeling bad for me, I don't want people moping around. I want this to be a story where when we look back, it was a happy story."

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