His teammates’ loud stick taps at the start of practice Thursday were an indication of how Kris Letang’s hockey family feels about him as he recovers from his second stroke. It’s just as heartfelt but a little different for the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman’s actual family.
“Scary, to be honest,” Letang said after he rejoined practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, 10 days after he had a stroke. They were his first public comments since the medical event.
“My (two) kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not. They care about me being a dad. Same thing with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows that there’s so much more, and after hockey there’s a long time. We want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.
“It was hard, but … we’ve been through this.”
Yes, this is the second time Letang, 35, has had a stroke. The first came in January 2014. He did not play again until that April. But he played again. And that’s an important point, Letang said.
He has no intention of retiring because of this stroke, which has turned out to be less severe than the first.
Officially, Letang has been upgraded from out indefinitely to a status of day to day, although it seems improbable that he will play Friday in Buffalo. At practice, he rotated in on the third defensive pairing, rather than in his normal spot on the top pair, and he sat out the power play drills.
But he also was not wearing a non-contact jersey.
It bordered on – or was – remarkable.
“It’s a scary word. ‘Stroke’ is a scary word,” Letang said. “I’m lucky to have the staff that we have. I know I’m in good hands. I’ve been lucky that these things have resolved on their own and I can go back to a normal life.
“People who know me well know that hockey is a passion for me, something that it would take a lot to drive me out of it. At the same time, I know the danger. I made sure that I know all the risks I’m taking, and if there’s none I will resume playing, and that’s the case right now.”
Accompanying Letang when he spoke with reporters was team head physician Dharmesh Vyas, and he backed up Letang’s optimism.
Letang’s strokes have been caused by a small hole in his heart, not from playing a rigorous contact sport such as hockey.
“Certainly it’s not the sport that created this problem,” Vyas said. “He had a risk just having this hole in his heart, and he’s had a stroke twice.”
Vyas also supported Letang’s timetable since the stroke. He began skating separately from the team just a few days later and built toward Thursday’s full practice.
“He’s always surprised us with how well he feels,” Vyas said. “We don’t think that this is accelerated in any way. We’re taking all the right precautions to make sure that he’s safe to go out and play. When that time comes, we’ll let him get back to playing his sport.”
If it seems as if Letang’s second stroke has been easier to deal with, that’s accurate.
“Last time we actually had to figure out why he had that stroke. We already know that now,” Vyas said. “The timeline in terms of diagnostics was much shorter, just confirming what we knew already.
“Secondly, his stroke this time is much smaller than it was last time. The symptoms have resolved a lot quicker than they did last time as well. And we know what to expect … in terms of how this will be treated.”
As that warm set of stick taps showed – and they were followed by Letang handing out fist bumps — Letang’s teammates got a lift from having him at practice.
“It’s great,” said team captain, fellow core player and longtime teammate and friend Sidney Crosby. “He’s been skating a little bit here. It just means things are going well, and great to see him out there with us.”
Penguins defenseman Jeff Petry confirmed that there was genuine relief and feeling in those stick taps.
“It’s obviously a great sign for his personal health,” Petry said. “That means he’s getting closer. That’s a guy that we want to make sure that’s healthy. Obviously, his health’s No. 1, but he’s a big part of this team and a big part of this back end, so it’s positive to see him out there.”
Coach Mike Sullivan said he had confidence in including Letang in the drills at practice because he has confidence in the club’s medical team, although he acknowledged that having a player recovering from a stroke is different from most injuries.
Letang said other than his conditioning not being its best after more than a week with just some non-practice skating, he felt good during and after Thursday’s practice.
The first time Letang had a stroke, he collapsed at home but recovered sufficiently to travel the same day with the team to the West Coast before he was eventually diagnosed.
This time was different. Letang had this stroke Nov. 28. He explained what happened:
“In the past I’ve had migraines a lot. It’s maybe a half hour that I’m struggling with my vision, I get headaches, I get nauseous. Either I throw up or I go to sleep and they kind of wear off and I’m good to go. Usually I get maybe one or maybe two every two months. But they were happening every three hours. They kept coming and coming and coming.”
He contacted team head trainer Chris Stewart, who looped in Vyas. They sent Letang for an MRI, and then to a hospital.
Sullivan, with Kris Letang out of the hospital and by Sullivan’s side, told the rest of the team Nov. 29 following a tough 3-2 overtime loss at home against Carolina.
And perhaps sometime soon, Letang will return to the lineup. But only when it’s warranted.
“We’re taking all the time we need to figure this thing out,” Letang said.