By Stu Hackel
The measure of a man’s character comes when he has to summon it in the face of a crises. By that standard, Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding ranks among the top character athletes in all of sports.
The 28-year-old Harding disclosed on Wednesday that he has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable disease that can cause problems with balance, fatigue and vision, three necessary elements to play any sport, no less goaltender — the toughest position in what may be the hardest sport of all. But he’ll endeavor to continue his career and remain in training for whenever the league returns. His desire to keep at it demonstrates all anyone needs to know about him.
“I had a couple days where I felt bad for myself, but no more,” Harding told Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “There’s things in life that happen. Sometimes you can’t explain it. You deal with it.”
After experiencing a tweak in his neck during preseason workouts that evolved into dizziness, seeing black spots and having numbness in his right leg, Harding saw a doctor and got a preliminary diagnosis that was eventually confirmed as MS, a disease where damage to the protective coating around nerve cells causes signals to slow or stop. He halted his workouts, rested and was put on an aggressive medication treatment. His symptoms have passed. The fact that it was diagnosed and treated early could prove crucial in his maintaining his quality of life.
“It bodes well that we got on it right away before he got into a cycle of getting run down,” Wild doctor Dan Peterson told Russo. “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.”
Harding returned to workouts this week and his teammates told him they detected no deterioration in his performance even after six weeks off.
Now he’s going public with this news for two reasons. First, if the season resumes, he doesn’t want the news to leak out during the schedule and become a distraction. Second, he wants to create more awareness about MS and be an example for others who suffer from it. He’s already considering establishment of a charitable foundation.
He’s already used his position as an NHL goalie to help raise awareness about breast cancer after his older sister was diagnosed with it five years ago.
Establishing a charitable organization is what Saku Koivu did after he beat Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma during his time as captain of the Canadiens. His foundation helped raise money for Montreal General Hospital to purchase a PET CT scan machine that helps in diagnosis of the disease. There was no such machine in Montreal when he was stricken in 2001. Here’s a piece about Koivu’s efforts that ran on Hockey Night in Canada‘s pregame show.
Koivu, Penguins great Mario Lemieux and Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller are three top-level NHLers who in the last few decades have had to battle serious diseases but returned to play. Mario was diagnosed with Hodgkin Disease in 1993; he too has a charitable foundation that has donated millions of dollars to a variety of causes since it was established. Hiller, who was perhaps the best goalie in the NHL during the first half of the 2010-11 season, was stricken with Vertigo right after the All-Star Game and, with the exception of a couple of appearances, missed the remainder of the season. His symptoms subsided and Hiller returned to play a full season last year.
Harding is hoping for a similar outcome. “I don’t want people treating me different, I don’t want people feeling bad for me, I don’t want people moping around,” he told Russo. “I want this to be a story where when we look back, it was a happy story.”
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