‘Life is bigger than hockey’: Kris Letang on grief and surviving two strokes

<span>Photograph: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Before a recent road game, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang decided to have some fun.

In the middle of the pre-game warmup, the All-Star defenseman flipped a bunch of practice pucks from the goal crease to fans wearing the Penguins’ black-and-yellow jersey behind the glass.

That playfulness provided a stark contrast from the misery he experienced a year ago. In a span of five weeks, Letang suffered a stroke and the death of his father. But as his passion for hockey helped him recover emotionally, he gained a new perspective.

“Sometimes you get caught up with day-to-day life, especially with hockey,” Letang says. “You get caught up just worrying about a game you just played or the practice that just happened, and you don’t see the big picture.”

Letang’s second stroke came eight years after his first, when he was 26. A small opening in the wall that separates the heart’s two upper chambers allowed a blood clot to move to his brain.

Letang’s future wife, Catherine, found him on the floor of their home on 29 January 2014. Catherine called her mother, a registered nurse who was visiting at the time and was about to leave with Letang on a road trip for players’ mothers. “At that time, I had a son that was two years old and my wife,” Letang says. “You know, you start thinking about family and you’re kind of scared.”

Yet Letang never believed his career was in danger, especially after consulting with doctors. “They told me, ‘This is under control,’” he says. “‘The best course of action right now is to put you on medication. It should resolve fully and [you can] go back to your normal life.’”

Letang began taking blood thinners and missed the next 26 games during the ensuing 10 weeks. But he played in the Penguins’ final three regular-season games and in all of the team’s 13 contests in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

During the 2014-15 offseason, Letang resumed his rigorous training regimen with Jon Chaimberg, who owns a gym in Montreal and trained such mixed martial arts champions as Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans.

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“When he came back to actual training, nothing was off limits for him,” Chaimberg says. “As long as the doctors gave us the go-ahead, we could do whatever we wanted to do. Kris is probably the hardest worker you’ve ever met.”

That hard work enabled Letang to help the Penguins win the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cups, and recover from his second stroke, which he sustained last November.

“When someone comes in and says, ‘One of your players had a stroke,’ that’s a scary word,” coach Mike Sullivan says. “For that to happen to Kris at such a young age, and that was the second time, that’s a scary circumstance. All of us were concerned for him, and I think everyone tried to rally around him to support him.”

Yet instead of missing 10 weeks, Letang returned to action on 10 December last year, and played a team-high 22 minutes, 14 seconds in a 3-1 home victory against the Buffalo Sabres.

“Emotionally, it was a lot easier because I kind of knew, ‘OK, this is what I have to go through. This is probably what happened and I should be fine,’” he says about his second stroke. “So the rehabilitation was way shorter.

“What was different, though, was the symptoms. Being able to stand on my feet was impossible in the first one, and the second one was all vision problems, headaches, stuff like that. At the same time, both were scary.”

But on 28 December, Letang broke his foot against the Detroit Red Wings. Three days later, he received news that his father, Claude Fouquet, died after a long illness.

“I was actually on my way down to the New Year’s Eve party in Boston, because we were playing the outdoor game,” Letang says. “Me, my wife and the kids were in the hotel and we got the call.”

That news proved more devastating than the stroke diagnoses. “The stroke, at that point, was pretty meaningless,” Letang says. “My dad was somebody that was really close to me, really close to my kids. I think he never missed my son’s games.”

The dynamics of Letang’s family intensified his grief.

“My parents were separated,” Letang says. “So I was seeing him less as a kid then because I was living with my mom. But I never had a bad day with him. It was always really positive. Nobody in my family were athletes and he was just enjoying me as a hockey player, coming to the rink, or seeing my workouts. It was really tough to deal with because I think he was finally in a good place with the family.”

Fouquet even became a part of the Penguins’ extended family. He went on the team’s trips for the players’ fathers and became friends with Sidney Crosby’s dad.

“My dad and Sid’s dad would sit together in the game and see each other on the road,” Letang says. “The fathers trip was the trip he was waiting for the entire year. He was at home all the time so he was always excited to go.”

After Fouquet’s death, the Penguins honored him by wearing stickers with the initials “CL” on their helmets. The team even took an overnight flight from Phoenix after a game to Montreal to attend Fouquet’s funeral before returning to Pittsburgh for another game the following evening.

“It was pretty emotional to see them pop in,” Letang says. “I said that night that he’s probably looking from up there and saying, ‘This is probably the best day of my life. I got all the Penguins around me.’”

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As Letang’s foot was healing, the grief became overwhelming. “I was at home,” he says. “They were long days, really emotional days. At one point, my wife was like, ‘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.’”

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

A return to normalcy, even while grieving, paid immediate dividends. After missing 11 games, Letang not only collected two goals and two assists in his return on 24 January. He scored the winning goal in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory against the Florida Panthers. Then on 2 April, Letang played in his 1,000th career game. He finished the season as the club’s leader in average ice time a game: 24 minutes, 51 seconds.

Letang’s perseverance earned him the NHL’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded for perseverance and dedication.

“His sheer competitiveness and his passion for the game, I think that’s very unique,” Sullivan says of Letang. “There aren’t too many guys that I’ve been around that make the sort of sacrifices he makes to maximize his ability level. That underlying passion drives him in every facet of his life.”

Crosby, a superstar who entered the NHL one year before Letang did, agrees. “It’s been really cool to see that same drive and passion that he had from day one,” says the Penguins’ captain. “He seemed to have sustained that through everything over the years, overcoming the things that he’s had to overcome.”

But last year’s anguish provided perspective amid the passion. “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,” Letang says. “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.”