Kris Letang on life: overcoming two strokes, navigating grief

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Kris Letang, the resilient defenseman for Pittsburgh, has confronted challenges both on and off the ice, enduring the loss of his father and celebrating victories with two Stanley Cups. Ahead of a recent road game, the All-Star player displayed his playful side during the pre-game warmup, tossing practice pucks to fans behind the glass adorned in Penguins jerseys.

This cheerful moment sharply contrasts with the difficulties Letang faced a year ago, overcoming a stroke and the passing of his father in a span of five weeks. Hockey played a crucial role in Letang’s emotional recovery, providing him with a renewed perspective on life. Reflecting on these experiences, he underscores the importance of recognizing the broader picture beyond the day-to-day concerns of the game.

At 26 years old, Letang faced his second stroke, eight years after the initial occurrence. The second incident resulted from a small opening in the wall separating the heart’s upper chambers, allowing a blood clot to travel to his brain.

Discovered by his future wife, Catherine, on January 29, 2014, Letang was found on the floor of their home. Catherine, a registered nurse, promptly contacted her visiting mother as they were about to depart on a road trip for players’ mothers.

Despite concerns about family and his career, Letang maintained confidence following consultations with doctors who assured him of the situation’s control. Prescribed medication led to a 26-game absence in the subsequent 10 weeks. However, Letang returned to play in the Penguins’ final three regular-season games and all 13 playoff contests, ultimately securing the Stanley Cup.

In the 2014-15 offseason, Letang resumed rigorous training with Jon Chaimberg, owner of a Montreal gym renowned for training mixed martial arts champions. Despite experiencing a second stroke in the previous November, Letang’s dedication played a pivotal role in the Penguins’ triumphs in the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups.

Coach Mike Sullivan expressed both concern and admiration for Letang’s resilience, emphasizing the frightening nature of a player having a stroke, especially at a young age and for the second time. The team rallied around Letang, providing support during this challenging period.

Yet, instead of being sidelined for 10 weeks, Letang swiftly returned on December 10 last year, contributing an impressive 22 minutes and 14 seconds in a 3-1 home victory against the Buffalo Sabres.

Regarding his second stroke, Letang reveals that emotionally, it was more manageable as he anticipated the process and expected eventual recovery. The rehabilitation period was notably shorter. Despite the altered symptoms, which included vision problems and headaches, both instances were equally distressing.

On December 28, Letang encountered another setback, breaking his foot against the Detroit Red Wings. Three days later, he received the heartbreaking news of his father, Claude Fouquet’s, passing after a prolonged illness. The impact of his father’s death outweighed the emotional weight of the stroke diagnoses. Letang highlights the strong bond with his father, who consistently supported him, attending every game without fail.

The intricacies of Letang’s family situation heightened his grief, especially given his parents’ separation. Despite less frequent interactions with his father during childhood due to residing with his mother, Letang cherishes only positive memories. Fouquet even became an integral part of the Penguins’ extended family, fostering friendships with other players’ fathers, including Sidney Crosby’s dad. The annual fathers’ trip held particular significance for Fouquet.

Following Fouquet’s passing, the Penguins paid homage by adorning stickers with the initials “CL” on their helmets. The team’s support extended further, as they took an overnight flight from Phoenix to Montreal for Fouquet’s funeral and then promptly returned to Pittsburgh for another game the following evening.

Reflecting on the team’s solidarity, Letang conveyed his gratitude, recognizing the profound emotional impact of their gesture. He envisioned his father looking down with satisfaction, grateful to have the Penguins surrounding him.

While Letang’s foot was in the healing process, the weight of grief became overwhelming. Recounting the long and emotionally charged days at home, Letang shares, “At one point, my wife suggested, ‘I think you have to get back to what you do every single day. That’s what your dad would ask you to do. He wants you to be back on the ice as soon as possible.’ So my wife told me, ‘Just go back to it. It might clear your mind a little bit.'”

This counsel proved pivotal. Sullivan remarks, “He loves to play hockey and he loves being around his teammates. I think that’s his comfort zone. To have a bit of normalcy in his life during those difficult times helps him cope with some of those challenges.”

Returning to a sense of normalcy, even in the midst of grief, yielded immediate benefits. After missing 11 games, Letang not only recorded two goals and two assists in his return on January 24 but also scored the winning goal in overtime, securing a 7-6 victory against the Florida Panthers.

Subsequently, on April 2, Letang marked his 1,000th career game. Finishing the season as the club’s leader in average ice time per game (24 minutes, 51 seconds), Letang’s perseverance earned him the NHL’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, acknowledging perseverance and dedication.

Sullivan reflects on Letang’s distinctive competitiveness and passion for the game, underscoring the sacrifices he makes to maximize his abilities. Crosby, a fellow veteran, agrees, noting Letang’s sustained drive and passion throughout his career, overcoming various challenges.

However, the anguish of the previous year offered perspective amid the passion. Reflecting on this, Letang notes, “My dad was somebody that enjoyed every second of his life, and you never know when that life is going to be taken away from you. You want to make sure you don’t waste any time on stuff that is irrelevant. You want to make sure you feel like you make the most of your time on Earth. “Life is bigger than just hockey.”

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