Josh Harding spent his first seven seasons as a backup goalie with the Minnesota Wild, and he entered his eighth thinking he’d spend it that way too when the Wild inked starting net-minder Niklas Backstrom to a new contract over the summer. Backstrom, though, has been plagued by injuries throughout the first few weeks of the National Hockey League season, pushing Harding into the starter’s role for the first extended period of his career.
He hasn’t let the Wild, who entered the season as a playoff contender in the Western Conference, down. The Wild have won 13 of his 19 starts and he’s allowed just 26 goals, good for the league’s second-best goals against average. His three losses are best among NHL goalkeepers, and only eight goalies have spent more time on the ice this season than he has.
And he’s doing it all with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s nervous system by eating away at myelin, the protective cover that surrounds nerve endings. Though MS comes in different forms and at different levels of severity, at its most mild it can cause issues with balance and vision and fatigue. At worst, people with MS can lose the ability to walk, talk, and see, and the disease can affect the most basic brain functions. But it hasn’t slowed Harding, who received his diagnosis last year and wants to prove to the world — and others with his disease — that multiple sclerosis doesn’t have to keep them from achieving their goals.
“It would make me happy to not just overcome this, but to really succeed with it,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last spring (via the Montreal Gazette). “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.”
“There is a poor perception of people diagnosed with MS,” Harding said when he launched his charity foundation, Harding’s Hope, last year. “People immediately think wheelchair and death. I want to be a role model for others diagnosed with MS by showing that this will not come between me and my goals.”
Harding started a charity last year to help raise money for research, awareness, and to aid families affected by the disease. But his goals include also being an example that the disease can be overcome.
“My goal with this charity is to give hope to people that have MS and let them know that they are not alone,” Harding says in the “My Goals” portion of his web site, HardingsHope.com. “Another goal I have personally is to do whatever I can in my power to make a difference. That is my promise to you. Whenever you feel that no one is there for you or your team doesn’t get what you are trying to tell them, know that I am here for you. I want to be part of each and every one of your teams and with everyone’s help, I think that we can make a true difference in this world!”
Perhaps it is easy for those with MS to feel alone, since the National MS Society estimates that there are only 2.3 million people in the world with the disease. Because the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t require physicians to report new cases, we can only guess at the number of Americans who have it. The majority are women, and we’re still learning new ways to treat it and deal with it. MS is rarely fatal, but it also has no cure, and because of its relative rarity, it doesn’t receive the attention that many other diseases do, even if there are MS walks and other campaigns to raise funds and awareness about it.
My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was a kid. Fortunately, hers isn’t the worst version. It is of the relapsing/remitting variety, so it comes in spurts, but most of the time, no one would know she suffered from anything at all. Recent checks have shown that hers will more likely affect her cognitively, not physically, and at times it can cause her to have less focus on what she’s doing. There are physical effects too. When the flare-ups come, she loses feeling in her legs and sometimes her face, causing discomfort that can affect her ability to sleep. And yet, she’s been nothing but strong through it all, biking and exercising and living an otherwise normal life, even if it’s sometimes interrupted by and plenty of different medications and flare-ups and trips to the doctor for intravenous steroidal treatments that will make them go away.
Hardly an expert hockey fan, she called me yesterday to ask if I’d heard Harding’s story yet. She had just gotten home from an IV treatment — she’s having another flare-up this week and wasn’t feeling well. But there was a little bit of excitement in her voice when we talked about Harding, about his performance, about how he was overcoming his own struggle with the disease they both have. She doesn’t necessarily feel alone in having the disease, but she likes that Harding is raising its profile, showing, as she said, that “it affects people differently and it doesn’t always mean life in a wheelchair.”
Sometimes, it’s just nice to know that there’s someone else out there dealing with the same thing you’re dealing with, to see them overcome it and excel, to learn that you can too. And sometimes it’s nice to know that there’s a person like Josh Harding out there willing to use his struggle to make other peoples’ struggles a little bit easier. So I hope Harding knows that a year into his battle with MS, he’s already living up to the goals he set for himself and his foundation, that just by playing for the Wild, he’s already becoming a part of so many other teams.