The Pittsburgh Penguins opened their 2014 playoff run April 16 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Amidst all the hype, there was one player whose name only appeared in the penalty column...a player that at one point this season, no one thought would be here.
Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang was in the Penguins' line-up when the playoffs started. Hardly a notable achievement on its own; Letang has been a mainstay on the Pittsburgh blueline for years. But when one considers what Letang has gone through this season, it gives one a chance to take a moment and reflect.
On February 7, 2014, it was announced to the hockey world that Letang had suffered a stroke and would be out of action for at least six weeks. It was also revealed that Letang had a very small hole in the wall of his heart. While the Penguins were publicly optimistic about Letang's return and recovery, some doubted privately that he would be able to return this season at all.
Letang's condition is medically called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO for short. Every human being is born with a hole in their heart. It resembles a flap-like opening in the wall of the heart that divides the right and left atrium. This hole typically seals itself in infancy, but for 25 percent of people, the hole never closes.
In a normal functioning heart, blood enters the right side of the heart and gets filtered through the lungs. This process allows micro clots in the blood stream to be filtered out. The blood then goes through the left side of the heart and is delivered to the rest of the body. But in a person with PFO, the blood sometimes reverses direction, meaning the blood will flow through the hole, bypassing the filtering process. These clots remain in the bloodstream, and are pumped out into the arteries leading to the brain. In rare occasions, a clot will block the normal distribution of the blood in the brain, resulting in a stroke. This is what happened to Letang.
The usual treatment of such a condition is through blood thinners. Letang would not engage in full practises until the treatments were done and the doctors cleared him.
While doctors expressed optimism at a full recovery and return to action, many would have not blamed Letang had he shut it down for the remainder of the season. At age 26, the reality that he had suffered a stroke was staggering. At his first public appearance since the incident, Letang was vague about a return to action this season.
"I'm going to say, it's not really a good season for me, not really lucky," Letang told reporters February 27. "But honestly, if I have the chance to come back this year and play, it's going to be great and I want to make sure I forget all about the three quarters of the season I missed."
Ten weeks after his wife found him on the floor unable to move, Kris Letang was cleared to return to action on April 9, against the visiting Detroit Red Wings. His return was nothing short of miraculous. It is a testament to the tenacity and perseverance of the player that he picked up an assist in his first game back.
Piece of the Puzzle
As any Penguin fan will attest to, Letang is a frustratingly dazzling combination of offensive and defensive skill. His end to end rushes are reminiscent of another Penguin defenseman by the name of Paul Coffey. While no one would compare Letang to arguably the greatest offensive defenseman to play the game next to Bobby Orr, Penguin supporters have been spoiled with great blueliners.
While he is caught out of position at times, his blazing speed most often makes up for it. He provides punch on the power play and chews up 18-23 minutes a game on average. He is a crucial piece to the Penguins' championship puzzle.
A little over ten weeks ago, there was great doubt that Letang would return to this season. Now, Penguin fans watch as #58 blazes his way up the ice, playing the style that has endeared him to so many. Now, the dark clouds that once surrounded Letang's future have lifted, hopefully to replaced with the silver glow of another Stanley Cup.
It is a reminder to all who follow the Letang story that health is precious, and hockey is secondary. It is a reminder not to ignore the signals the body sends, as Letang had bouts of nausea and dizziness before his actual stroke.
Now, the Penguin universe is complete with all its shooting stars. Letang has made a full recovery from his stroke. A Stanley Cup would make the storybook ending to a rollercoaster season for Kris Letang. His return truly is a tragedy to a triumph.
|Drafted by Pittsburgh in 2005, 62nd overall|
|44 goals and 165 assists for 209 career regular season points in 385 games,13 goals and 34 assists for 47 playoff points in 80 playoff games|
|Has two All-Star Game appearances, named to Second All-Star team in 2013|
|Stanley Cup Champion (2009), Norris Trophy nominee (2013)|