When I first heard the news that Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my mind immediately went back to my first meeting with the 28-year-old goaltender.
It was during the 2006-07 NHL season and I was in St. Paul working a game between the Wild and Phoenix Coyotes. I had heard of Harding’s campaign in support of his sister Stephanie, who was battling breast cancer. He had pink ribbons painted on his goalie mask in tribute to her. He’d even created a website where he would auction off his mask along with other memorabilia. I arranged a meeting with Wayne Gretzky, then coach of the Coyotes, who was happy to sign a stick for the cause. Needless to say, I was impressed by Harding’s compassion and his willingness to jump in and do whatever he could to help his sister during her battle.
Now, five years later, I have come to understand that this is simply Josh Harding’s way. Always quick to mobilize and show his support, paying tribute to those he cares about through the artwork on his goalie masks. When close friends Pavol Demitra, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard lost their lives last year, they were memorialized on the back of his mask. A rose painted on the side honours his late grandmother, Rosemarie Harding, who died last summer. And in 2008 he wore a mask paying tribute to the victims of the 1-35W bridge disaster in Minnesota. Add to this his own battles back from potentially career-ending injuries and it’s easy to see how he has become a fan favourite in the Twin Cities.
And now this. It’s no surprise that with his recent MS diagnosis, Harding doesn’t want anyone’s pity. He only shared his story now to avoid the distraction he feared it would cause if and when the NHL season begins. He’s already working on creating a charity to bring awareness to MS, hoping to garner support from the hundreds of people in and out of the hockey world who have reached out since his announcement last week. And you can bet when he takes to the ice on opening night, he’ll be donning a new goalie mask specially designed for his crusade to battle MS.
I’m not sure how I would handle the news if I were in Harding’s shoes. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t describe it, as he has, as “just a little bump in the road.” He is receiving aggressive treatment to combat the physical effects of this debilitating disease and says he feels great. And while no one can predict what the future holds, when asked if this diagnosis changes any of the goals he’s set for himself, he is unequivocal.
“Not one bit. I still want to be a No. 1 goaltender,” Harding said. “I still want to bring a Stanley Cup to the state of Minnesota. That’s not going to change, ever.”
There are all kinds of people in his corner, hoping he does just that.