I have always been a huge fan of Josh Harding, not because of who he is or his hockey performance, but more so for what he has accomplished in the face of adversity. For those of you who don’t know, Josh Harding is a goaltender for the Minnesota Wild who has been with the organization since he was drafted by the team in the 2nd round in 2002. Along the way, he has dealt with many adversities: attempting to crack an NHL lineup, competing with other goaltenders for the Wild’s starting goaltender job, and dealing with season-ending injuries as he is approaching his prime. However, none of that compares to his battle with multiple sclerosis since his diagnosis in the infancy of the 2012-13 NHL season.
Josh Harding began his career in the WHL with the Regina Pats and the Brandon Wheat Kings, where he posted good enough numbers to get him drafted by the Minnesota Wild 38th in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Harding further padded his resume when he won awards for being the WHL’s top goaltender and most outstanding player in 2003. He eventually went on to represent Canada for a silver medal at the 2004 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Then, in 2004, he began his professional career with the Houston Aeros, a Minnesota Wild development team.
After posting some great numbers with the Aeros, Harding was called up for his first career NHL game on March 8th, 2006. He went on to play two more games that season, achieving a shutout in one of them. After continuing to perform terrifically for the Aeros, Harding’s presence with the Wild grew. Over the next three years, he slowly established himself as a permanent fixture with the team. He was still a long ways away from taking the starting goalie position from veteran Niklas Backstrom, but he was slowly earning more minutes each season. So far, Josh Harding’s story sounds like the standard career of any NHL goalie.
During a preseason game in the 2010-11 season, Harding tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee, ending his season. This could have been devastating to his career, but the Minnesota Wild still had faith in his abilities and signed him to a one year contract. The Wild’s faith in Harding paid off when he bounced back the next season and increased the amount of games he played while putting up solid numbers, earning himself a 3-year, $5.7 million contract extension. Things were looking good again for Josh Harding.
In late September 2012, Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease that makes an individual’s body, eyesight, speech, and mind work poorly. Their muscles are weak, they shake without control, they have trouble moving their bodies, and they have trouble balancing. People with MS often feel a great amount of pain and get tired easily. Their speech and sight sometimes become very poor. Thinking and solving problems is more difficult for people with MS than for healthy people. The disease can be very debilitating, and it gets worse over time. MS would be a huge detriment to anyone since it affects their day to day lives, but being a professional athlete, this could have been career ending for Josh Harding. Harding not only embraced his diagnosis, but he has still managed to play at an elite level throughout his ongoing fight.
In his first game back, Harding earned himself a 35 save shutout, a huge triumph in his fight against MS. He did not play many games for the rest of the season though. When starting goalie Niklas Backstrom injured himself for the remainder of the playoffs in warm ups of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs versus the President’s Trophy (team that has the most points in the league at the end of the regular season) winning Chicago Blackhawks, Harding proved that he was not going to let MS get the best of him. Despite losing the series 1-4, his playoff efforts eventually went on to win him the Bill Masterton Trophy for the 2012-13 season.
The Bill Masterton Trophy has always been my favourite trophy to see awarded each year at the NHL Awards. The other trophies are obviously exciting to see since it gives vindication to players’ performances from the previous season, but the Bill Masterton Trophy is the award that shows a players true passion for hockey. The Bill Masterton Trophy is awarded each year to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. Usually this translates to players who have defied and defeated overwhelming odds against them to continue to pursue their career in the NHL that season. Some previous winners of this are: Mario Lemieux after overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Saku Koivu after defeating non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Phil Kessel after overcoming testicular cancer, and Josh Harding for his ongoing fight with multiple sclerosis.
Despite this career high, Harding was not going to stop there. He came back for the 2013-14 season to lead the NHL with an 18-7-3 record, 1.77 GAA, and 0.933 SV% in his first 29 games played. Unfortunately these hot numbers were put to a dead halt when he had complications with his medication that forced him to go onto injury reserve on December 17th, 2013. Harding then came back to play two more games, but the game on December 31st 2013 would be his last of the 2013-14 NHL season, and his last NHL game he has played to date due to further issues with his illness. By the time it was the offseason, Harding’s health condition had improved and he was practicing with the Wild again. With plenty signs of optimism coming from Wild Coaching Staff and Management, it was looking like Harding was yet again set to make a comeback. Then disaster struck.
Reports started flowing into the sports world that Harding may, yet again, be out for the long term with an injury. This time though, it wasn’t his MS holding him back, but a broken foot that he obtained after an off-ice altercation with a teammate. Since he acted out of frustration off of the ice when he broke his foot, the Minnesota Wild suspended Harding without pay until further notice.
Harding started practicing with the Minnesota Wild again on November 10th in hopes to pick up where he left off before he broke his foot. On November 17th, Harding was taken off of his suspension, but he was also put on waivers. Why was this done though? Here is a quote from Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the issue:
“Harding hasn’t played since Dec. 31 (multiple sclerosis last season, then broken foot sustained in an off-ice incident days before training camp), so assistant GM Brent Flahr said a conditioning stint didn’t make sense because Harding is going to need a lot of time to practice and play — more than the maximum on a stint.
Keeping three goalies on a 23-man roster wasn’t an option, Flahr said.”
In addition to that, the tandem of goalies Niklas Backstrom and new up-and-comer Darcy Kuemper have stabilized the goal crease for the time being and have made Harding’s come back not as urgent as it once was. Now, there were several possible outcomes for Josh Harding’s future after he cleared waivers:
- He is placed with the Wild’s AHL team, the Iowa Wild (formerly the Houston Aeros), and would practice there until he returns to NHL form.
- Harding could be picked up by another team.
- He decides to retire.
I think the third of these options is the least likely. After going through so many hardships to get to this point, I doubt he is going to give up now.
Being a phenomenal player in the NHL is usually enough to earn my respect and admiration. However, to fight against the odds and perform at an elite level is something that is rare quality and should be cherished when witnessed. Josh Harding may not having a lengthy career to prove his elite status, but despite his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, he has proven enough to win the Bill Masterton Trophy. I wish Josh Harding all of the best in his fight against MS, and I look forward to seeing him make his eventual return to the NHL.
Cover Photo By: Jeff Gross/Getty Images