ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - As soon as he heard Josh Harding had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Jordan Sigalet contacted the Minnesota Wild goaltender.
"I reached out to him right away and let him know that I'm here for him, even though it's nobody that I've ever met in my life," Sigalet said. "I know what he's going through on a daily basis, and sometimes people don't."
Harding, 28, announced last week that he has been diagnosed the incurable autoimmune disease, which attacks the central nervous system. He said he is determined not to let it defeat him.
Sigalet, 31, the Abbotsford Heat's goaltending coach, can relate because he has been in the NHLer's skates. Nine years ago, the then star netminder with Bowling Green, was diagnosed with MS.
But Harding's announcement still caught him off guard.
"It was a complete shock," said Sigalet, a New Westminster, B.C., native. "I got a text late (one) night asking me if I'd seen the Josh Harding story. I was really thrown back. It brought me back to when I was diagnosed and made it feel real again, just thinking about the thoughts that he was probably going through."
After diagnosing Sigalet, doctors told him that he would never play again but he quickly returned to the college squad that he captained and went on play four seasons with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, Boston's top farm club. He also dressed for 10 games as a backup for the big-league Bruins and got into the final minute of one NHL game after Andrew Raycroft went down with an injury.
Sigalet, a seventh-round choice of Boston in 2001, posted a winning record, and kept his average below three goals per game, every season with Providence even after his disease resulted in a brief scare. In a November 2007 game against Worcester, he collapsed in the third period and was taken off the ice on a stretcher.
He attributed the situation to fatigue, the beginnings of a cold, dehydration and overheating that flared up old lesions on his legs, causing him to fall. He was knocked unconscious as he hit the ice. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli also blamed poor ventilation in Providence's arena.
Sigalet also toiled briefly in Austria and Russia before retiring in 2008-09. He is in his second season with Abbotsford after serving two seasons as goaltending coach with the WHL's Everett Silvertips.
"I can look back and be pretty proud of the fact that I played five years of hockey after being diagnosed with MS," he said. "To go from my junior year of college to stepping on the ice in the NHL and playing a minute of a game and backing up 10 games in the NHL, no one can take that away from me now — despite what they said. I went out there and proved to myself that I could do it and proved it to a lot of other people that didn't believe in me."
Sigalet, who kept his disease secret for several months, said Harding can feel relieved now that he has shared his story and is able to have a positive effect on the lives of other MS sufferers.
Since being diagnosed, Sigalet has taken an injection of Rebif three times per week. He said the choice of different medications available — pills, injections or IV treatments — will depend on how they best suit each person's lifestyle.
In his view, Harding can have a long, healthy NHL career if he keeps the right attitude and does not look too far ahead.
With MS affecting people in many different ways, he said, it's important not to compare your symptoms to those of other people. Nobody can predict what path the disease is going to take. If you think too far head, the effects on the body and mind can be extremely negative.
"Only you know your limits," Sigalet said. "You've really got to learn your body and know what you can and can't do — because people are going to try and tell you what you can do. You really don't know until you try yourself."
Sigalet has done a good job of testing the limits of Abbotsford's three goaltenders this season. He helped journeyman Barry Brust set a new AHL record for consecutive scoreless minutes (268 minutes and 17 seconds).That broke a record held for 55 years by Toronto Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower while he played in the minors for Cleveland.
"It was pretty remarkable," said Sigalet. "Obviously, we were very happy for Barry. That's probably the most nervous I've been as a goalie coach, watching that first period in San Antonio (when the record was broken). But the most remarkable thing about that record is that he didn't do it in consecutive games. He did it spread out over a long period of time, which gave him a long time to think about it."
Before Thursday's games, Brust, a 29-year-old Swan River, Man., native, who is playing on a minor-league contract, ranked No. 1 among AHL goaltenders with a 0.99 goals-against average, 6-1 record, .958 save percentage and three shutouts.
He was chosen Thursday as one of the AHL's three stars of the month for November after he went unbeaten in five games, sported a 0.59 average and collected his three goose eggs during the record-breaking period.
Meanwhile, the Heat's Danny Taylor ranked third among AHL goalies with a 1.69 average, two shutouts and 5-4 record. Leland Irving, who could figure prominently in the Calgary Flames' plans after the NHL lockout, also plays for the Heat.
Brust said it has been "a godsend" having Sigalet around to hone his craft.
"I don't think we could have three guys if he wasn't here," said Brust. "He's been amazing. ... For me, he's worked on my game, the technical side of it, like nobody ever had."