NASHVILLE, Tenn — Kris Letang received a reluctant honor Monday at the NHL Awards. When he was awarded the Masteron Trophy Monday at Bridgestone Arena, it was as much an honor as a reminder of the incredibly difficult season that the Pittsburgh Penguins travailed.
Last season, Letang had a trio of absences in rapid succession, the last two overlapping. First, Letang suffered his second stroke in November. He missed 10 days before he returned to practice. Then, Letang broke his foot in December before leaving the team on Jan. 1, one day before the Winter Classic at Fenway Park, to be with family after his father, Claude Fouquet, passed away suddenly.
It was a struggle to get back to the rink.
Letang missed a few weeks in January but also indicated he was prepared to sit out longer in January following the unexpected death of his father. His wife pushed him back to the rink after the team took a charter from Phoenix to Montreal to be with Letang during his father’s funeral.
After an extended road trip out west, the team left Arizona immediately following the game and flew all night to Montreal to attend the funeral later that morning.
“(The season) was up and down. Emotionally, it was really hard. At some times, you know, the mind isn’t there. You don’t want to come to the rink and show those emotions because your teammates are there. They have a job to do,” Letang admitted. “I think what they did for me in Montreal — to come down and be part of the funeral and being there for me and my family — kind of triggered something in me.
“And that’s the point where my wife said, ‘You should actually go back to the rink and change your mind and try to forget about what happened in the last few months and try to get back on track. And the guys will be there for you.’ I think that’s where it all started.”
The Penguins’ core group has been together longer than any trio in North American sports. Letang and Sidney Crosby were both 2005 Penguins draft picks (Crosby was first overall, Letang was a third-round selection), and Evgeni Malkin was selected the previous year. Letang made his NHL debut in 2006-07, and the trio has been together for 17 seasons.
There have been the highs of three Stanley Cups and the lows of playoff upsets and missing the playoffs last season for the first time in their careers.
It’s been a tight bond forged that kept Malkina and Letang in Pittsburgh last summer, despite being just days from free agency.
Physically, Letang is fine. Doctors are managing the causes of the stroke and broken feet heal, but, like anyone, losing a parent will stay with him.
“We are aware of everything on the health side, so we know what to expect. And there are certain things we will do eventually that will probably help,” Letang said. “And as far as mentally, everything that happened in my family, it’s something you can’t really put that aside. It’s something that will always be there, but you have to be able to navigate through life with that, you know? Keep your focus on the things you have to do. And that’s what I’ve been doing with the help of everybody that surrounds me.”
On a much more positive note, Letang brought his 10-year-old son Alex Letang to the interview podium, as he’s done at previous All-Star games and last year’s NHL Draft to announce his new six-year contract.
Alex said he’s proud of his dad, even though the award “is a trophy that’s not like my dad’s style.”
Letang had his entire family on the red carpet, including his wife Katherine and daughter Victoria. And Alex may have asked for Connor McDavid’s autograph in the men’s room.
The trophy and the night were earned recognition for Kris Letang as well as a night to honor family, past and present.