11/28/2013 at 10:00 AM EST
Josh Harding peers through the metal cage of his facemask during a recent morning practice as pucks fly at him like bullets, slamming against his thick mitts and leg pads while he moves with lightning-fast precision, trying to block each shot.
A few hours later back at his home outside of St. Paul, Minn., a less intimidating-looking Harding sips a soda and quietly recounts that awful moment in October 2012 when his life was turned upside down after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "It was scary," he says softly. "I didn’t know if I could continue playing hockey or if I'd be in a wheelchair."
The past year has been a bumpy one for the 29-year-old star goaltender for the Minnesota Wild, who has battled his way back onto the ice after sitting out a portion of last season while doctors struggled to fine-tune his medications. This season, however, Harding has emerged as one of the top goalies in the NHL. Says Wild head coach Mike Yeo: "He's playing the best hockey of his career."
Not long after learning he had MS, which strikes women at three times the rate of men, Harding realized how fortunate he was to have access to medications and treatments. So he launched his Harding's Hope foundation (hardingshope.org
), aimed at helping those faced with the decision of whether to “pay for their meds or put food” on the table.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to come out on top of this," says Harding. "I don't want MS to define me."