The rink whereJosh Hardingnow works is five minutes fromhis house in Edina, Minnesota. A road trip now means a drive to a different local high school. Every day includes lots of quality time with his 3-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son.
Even over the phone, you can sense that Harding is at peace with the fact that this is where his career path has led.
"When the doctors say enough's enough, you kind of have to listen to them," the former Minnesota Wild netminder said.
Just before he picked up the phone to call an ESPN.com reporter, Harding, 32, spoke withCarolina Hurricanes forward Bryan Bickell.
Bickell, 30, was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is taking time away from the game to try to figure out how best to deal with the disease, the same incurable one that ultimately ended Harding's career in 2015.
By sharing some of his experiences in dealing with MS, which attacks and scars the protective covering of nerves in the brain and spinal cord, Harding gave Bickell at least some sense of what lies ahead. He also shared strategies, things that worked and things that didn't work for him.
"Anything I can obviously do for him to kind of help him along," Harding said. "I was just telling him that one of the things I felt was very tough was when you're trying new medications but trying to play and practice through those. That was pretty tough for me. But I think Bryan's handling it great."
Apart from his hands-on advice, Harding has also helped simply by being a sounding board, someone who understands intimately the nature of the now-competing narratives that will dominate Bickell's life moving forward -- battling the disease and fighting to stay in the game.
When Harding was diagnosed in 2012, he spoke with Jordan Sigalet,another netminder whose playing career had been derailed by multiple sclerosis. Both Sigalet and Harding have been or plan to be in touch with Bickell, a kind of unspoken pay-it-forward mentality that springs from the shared experience of being diagnosed with MS.
"Just coping with it and accepting that there isn't a cure right now, but the sooner you can kind of wrap your head around it and really get what works for you, the better it's going to be," Harding said.
The one thing that Harding cannot give Bickell is the answer he wants to hear: that he will definitely, at some point, return to being an NHL player.
"If there was a blueprint for what you have to do, I really think I'd still be in the league," Harding said. "That's obviously another tough thing with this disease, that there isn't this exact handout that you can follow to get it out of your body."
Harding knows the difficulty of that fact all too well.
The native of Regina, Saskatchewan, was diagnosed with MS in September 2012. That fall, NHL players were locked out in a labor dispute for several months and the season was ultimately cut almost in half.
Harding wrestled with how to deal with his diagnosis. The Wild were aware, but he considered keeping his condition from becoming public knowledge. That ultimately didn't seem workable, given that he was going to need to take time away from the team for rest and treatment.
Harding ultimately decided that sharing his story -- letting people know that multiple sclerosis wasn't something to be ashamed of and that he was going to work to continue his job while dealing with the disease-- was an important part of his new reality.
That mindset has never changed, even if Harding did have to make concessions to his health.
He registered a shutout in his first game after the lockout but appeared in just five games during the shortened '13 season. That spring, Harding was pressed into service in the first round of the playoffs when starter Niklas Backstrom was injured before Game 1 against theChicago Blackhawks. Harding was excellent in an overtime loss in the Wild's first game against top-ranked Chicago and played in every game of the series before the Wild were eliminated in Game 5.
Later, Harding would receive the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in recognition of his perseverance and dedication to the game.
But the reality was that Harding's best opportunity to keep the disease at bay was at odds with being a player -- and, specifically, an NHL netminder.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it: It was very tough for me," he said. "Right when I thought that I kind of had it under control, it just seemed like something would kick my legs out from under me again."
For Harding, taking as much stress out of his life and having an orderly schedule of rest allowed him to function as close to normal as possible. And that meant an end to his life as an NHLer. "I feel like I'm in a lot better place now, healthwise," he said.
Maybe Bickell will find that his experience with MS is different. Harding, for one, is rooting for Bickell to find something that eluded him.
"I would give anything to be back playing hockey," Harding admitted. "That's kind of what we've done for our entire life. It's kind of a diagnosis that you know you didn't ask for and you didn't want. There's really not much you can do except to battle through it. But I really miss [playing]."
The extra time Harding gets with his young family is a treasure that is denied most NHL players, given the travel demands of the sport. And coaching alongside former NHLer and highly successful high school coach Curt Giles at Edina High School has given Harding a welcome connection to the game.
Sometimes the kids on the Edina Hornets will ask whether Harding is going to put on the pads at practice. But he doesn't. Harding is aware that even something that seemingly simple could upset the balance that he has established in his life, could add unneeded stress.
Plus, he joked, there are pretty good shooters among the high schoolers and his confidence might take quite a beating. He figures that he can live without that. He's focusing on the positives and happy that he still has a tie to the sport he loves.
"I try to take the positives out of it," he said.
Former Wild goalie Josh Harding is helping Hurricanes winger Bryan Bickell navigate life with MS
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