During the NHL lockout Wild goaltender Josh Harding
received life-changing news. The 28-year-old was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The incurable autoimmune disease that causes problems with balance, fatigue and blurred vision could’ve ended his career. Instead Harding was determined to keep playing and become an inspiration for those afflicted with the disease.
Now that the season is over the National Hockey League has announced that Harding has been named a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The trophy is presented annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Nominees, finalists and the Masterton award winner are selected by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Boston's Adam McQuaid were also named finalists for the award today.
Despite a shortened training camp, Harding started the Wild’s second game on Jan. 20 against Dallas. Harding was dominant as he stopped 24 shots en route to a 1-0 victory over the Stars.
He appeared in four games before he was placed on the Injured Reserve on Feb. 12, because he “felt off” while taking medication related to MS.
It wasn’t until March 28 that Harding returned to the ice and went through a full practice with his teammates. During his time on Injured Reserve, Harding was working with his doctor to find the right set of medications through a trial-and-error process.
“It’s frustrating more than anything,” Harding said on March 28. “The one thing that the doctors have taught me, every case of MS is different; you really don’t have a baseline where you can look at somebody in a similar situation because their MS probably isn’t the same as yours. You have to find out what works for you.”
“I want to keep going forward. The way I’ve been feeling, we’re going to keep pushing it and hopefully get back out there. I’m excited and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
On April 16, Harding continued his progress when he was sent to the Houston Aeros of the AHL for a rehabilitation assignment. With Houston he went 1-1-0 with a 2.92 goals-against average (GAA) and a .885 save percentage.
Ending the regular season with Minnesota, Harding looked to be set as the Wild’s backup goaltender heading into its Western Conference Quarterfinal with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Then unexpectedly in Game 1 pregame warmups, Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom suffered a lower-body injury and was unable to play. Starting his first game in over two months, Harding was brilliant. The Wild would fall in overtime, 2-1, but Harding stopped 35-of-37 shots.
With Backstrom unable to come back from injury, Harding started all five games of the Wild’s first round playoff loss to the Blackhawks. He saved 126-of-135 shots as he played in five games over a nine-day stretch.
“I’m definitely happy with where I’m at now [health-wise], but I’ll be even more dialed in next year,” Harding said May 11 at the team’s exit day interviews. “I played five games in nine days, and without that little injury, I was feeling great. No setbacks at all.”
Harding said he plans on working out over the summer to put back the weight he lost battling MS during the season and getting back to where his strength and quickness needs to be.
Wild General Manager was impressed by Harding’s ability to return this season and perform under the pressure in the playoffs.
“Absolutely,” Fletcher answered when asked at his exit-day interview if he felt comfortable with Harding being the team’s No. 1 goaltender next season. “The doctors are telling me now they can manage his illness. My hope is over the summer he’ll get healthy in terms of his strength and his weight and the things you need to have happen to play a full season.
“He’s a guy that has never been that No. 1 goaltender, but certainly in periods of his career has shown the ability to be a good goaltender. That will be his challenge, we’re very comfortable having him in the mix next year.”