Commentary

Harding not backing down to MS

Updated: May 7, 2013, 5:00 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Blackhawks, WildBrace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsWild goalie Josh Harding has plenty on his plate these days, and he has responded well so far.
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- That Josh Harding chooses not to let the fact he has multiple sclerosis become a talking point in this playoff season is his prerogative.

This is the time for discussion to be about pucks and saves and swings in momentum, not medication and an uncertain future.

But it does not mean his story of perseverance in the face of an incurable nervous system disease does not continue to be told with a strong, clear voice.

With each passing moment, with each save he makes, with each victory he and the Minnesota Wild earn, Harding tells a story that resonates far beyond the confines of this opening-round series between the Wild and the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks.

"You know why it's great? Josh is such a good teammate. We get a first-hand [view] of what he's going through, and I know every guy is so happy for Josh and the way that he's been able to play," veteran forward Matt Cullen said Monday, a day after Harding backstopped the Wild to their first home playoff win in more than five years.

"He's gone through quite a bit. He is doing a lot behind the scenes. He's at the doctor's a lot, and he's doing a lot of stuff. To [be able to] see him go through this is pretty cool. It's one of those things [where] you just feel so happy for him. He's a good guy and he's worked so hard and he's just gone through so much."

No matter how this ends up for Harding and the Wild -- who trail the Blackhawks 2-1 in the best-of-seven series with Game 4 set for Tuesday night -- the 28-year-old netminder continues to illustrate in dramatic fashion that people should not be defined by labels.

Harding has multiple sclerosis, but the disease that attacks and scars the protective covering of nerves in the brain and the spinal cord has not defined Harding. Common symptoms of the condition include fatigue, numbness in the arms and legs, and balance and vision impairment.

"It definitely sends a huge message, especially to the millions of people living with MS," former Boston Bruins goaltending prospect Jordan Sigalet said.

Harding continues to show that a diagnosis of MS is not an impediment to living an active, healthy life, Sigalet told ESPN.com.

"He might not be saying it with words, but he's definitely expressing it with his actions," he said.

Sigalet, now the goaltending coach of the Abbotsford (British Columbia) Heat of the American Hockey League, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was a junior at Bowling Green University and managed to continue to play while he dealt with the disease.

When Harding revealed that he was suffering from MS, Sigalet reached out, and the two have been in regular contact during the season, often discussing issues of medication and the various successes and failures of different combinations, especially as it relates to maintaining a career as a professional goaltender.

"There are so many medications, and different ones work for different people," Sigalet said.

Harding I love it here. If anybody was at the game [Sunday, they saw] it was rockin' and the fans are behind us and it's a fun place to play.

-- Josh Harding, who
replaced starter Niklas Backstrom
before Game 1 in Chicago
At the best of times, if the medications are in sync, Sigalet recalled forgetting for a time that he had the disease.

Sigalet was watching Game 1 of the Blackhawks-Wild series when he saw Harding going in to replace injured Niklas Backstrom.

"I was pretty excited for him, actually," Sigalet said. "I think it's a great opportunity for him."

Sigalet figures the last thing Harding is thinking about in these moments is MS and said he understands Harding's reluctance to talk about his condition for fear of having it become a distraction for his teammates.

"And obviously he doesn't want it to be a distraction to himself, either," Sigalet said.

When Sigalet was playing with the disease, those moments on the ice represented a chance to step away from the reality of his condition. "That was my comfort zone, playing hockey," he said.

He said he assumes the same is true for Harding.

Harding's story isn't framed only by his battle with MS. He has missed considerable time in recent years with various injuries, including the entire 2010-11 season with a knee injury. He has battled vigorously to remain at the NHL level and signed a three-year contract extension at the end of last season, a signing that, at this point at least, has been fortuitous for an emerging Wild team.

"I've always been a proud member of the Minnesota Wild, and I was really excited to come back here," Harding said. "And that's the reason that we did [sign the extension]: We saw the team headed in the right direction. I love it here. If anybody was at the game [Sunday, they saw] it was rockin' and the fans are behind us and it's a fun place to play."

What makes an already compelling story even more dramatic is how little Harding has played this season. He struggled with his medication and missed time in a season already shortened by the lockout.

"And then to be told in warm-up that you're in the first playoff game in five years for the Wild?" former netminder Greg Millen told ESPN.com. "The good news, I guess, in those situations as a goalie, I can remember them, you don't get time to think about it, you're just in."

"I mean, it's just a terrific story. It's an unbelievable story that he's even playing, let alone playing at the level he is and contribute the way he has. I just can't give this kid enough credit."

After being thrust into the limelight in Game 1 when Backstrom suffered an injury moments before the start of the series, Harding has stopped 103 of 111 shots for a .928 save percentage. He was solid again Sunday as the Wild earned a crucial 3-2 overtime victory over the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks.

"As a person in the business, I'm not surprised, I guess, that he's battling the way he is, yet I'm still in awe. It's a remarkable feat," Millen said.

Wild coach Mike Yeo said Monday that he has seen "an unbelievable amount of battle" from Harding through the first three games of this series.

"Especially the fact that he has played so little hockey this year, the thing that impresses me is that it's not noticeable," he said.

"I think his timing looks good, I think he's fighting through traffic, he's seeing pucks, he's picking up pucks, he's controlling rebounds.

"Obviously, we know the importance of this time of year and your goaltender and how much the spotlight is on those guys, and I think that he's handled that extremely well."

As for Harding's long-term prognosis, that is impossible to predict, given the many and varied forms the disease takes and the variety of medications available.

"Its hallmark is its unpredictability," said Arney Rosenblat, associate vice president of public affairs for the National MS Society. "You don't know when or if you will suffer an attack. You don't know if it will affect your legs, your eyes or your arms. It could be dormant for years and years and years."

Rosenblat added that those connected to the disease are grateful to Harding for revealing his condition because there is a fear factor for those diagnosed with MS that people will turn away from them; that people will assume they can't do their jobs. Harding is showing that that isn't the case and, further, is showing people that they can and should push the envelope in spite of the disease.