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Resilient Letang is Penguins’ Nominee for Masterton Trophy



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang

Kris Letang’s friends and Pittsburgh Penguins teammates – there is a lot of overlap there – helped him celebrate his 1,000th NHL game April 2. Some noted that the 35-year-old defenseman took a long, sometimes difficult road to the major milestone.

He would have gotten there sooner if not for an extended list of setbacks during his stellar career. This season alone, Letang has dealt with his second stroke, the death of his father and an undisclosed injury. He still has played – and played at his high-minutes, high-level norm – in 62 of the Penguins’ 80 games, logging 11 goals, 39 points.

And that’s just this season. In the past, in addition to his first stroke in 2014, he has dealt with neck surgery, concussions, migraines and other injuries. Yet he has his name on the Stanley Cup three times and remains one of the Penguins’ stars, a core franchise player along with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That’s a lot to push through. It’s taken a ton of perseverance and dedication, and Letang has exhibited sportsmanship throughout the good times and the trying times.

The NHL has an award for that. The Masterton Trophy. Letang is the Penguins’ 2023 nominee for that annual award that goes to the player who best exemplifies those three aforementioned qualities. This is the fourth time he has been the team’s representative.

The Masterton nominees for each team, as well as the overall winner announced in the summer, are determined by a vote of Professional Hockey Writers Association members. He would seem to be a strong candidate for the overall trophy.

Letang has a pretty good grasp of what the award is about.

“It’s not so much of a hockey award; it’s more the type of person you are, the passion that you have for the game and what you’re able to go through,” Letang said.

“It’s not necessarily your performance on the ice; it’s more about the character and what you’re able to go through.”

That character was something he developed when he was young.

“It’s something that I always kind of took pride in, being able to bring it every day,” he said. “That’s how I was raised – to never back down from a challenge or to never quit when you’re down.

“My parents, my family, they are the big supporters. They (instilled) those qualities in me at an early age.”

That prepared him to go through the types of situations that are unpredictable and trying. Sitting out stretches of games. Going through rigorous physical rehab. Dealing with emotional situations.

He never thought about walking away from hockey.

“No. You know when hard times happen, it always gets better,” Letang said. “You don’t want to think right on the spot when these bad things happen because I don’t think you’re actually weighing the good and the bad. You’re just acting or thinking on the situation that you’re going through at the moment.

“Obviously, there are some tough times. There are emotional times. But at the end of the day, I always thought that I was going to push through it and be able to come out the other side and be the same or better.”

He didn’t get through all those situations alone. After his father, Claude Fouquet, died around the new year, he took a leave — he was also dealing with an injury then. The team changed its plans during a road trip to fly to Montreal to be there for the funeral. Letang pointed to Crosby and Malkin, his teammates for 17 seasons, as being particularly good friends. Crosby serves as the team captain, Malkin and Letang the alternate captains.

“These two guys, they’ve always been there for me,” Letang said. “And they also know what’s it’s like to not be able to play or going through tough times.”

Away from the rink, Letang takes comfort in spending time with his family in good times and bad.

“The family – my wife, (two) kids – they make everything lighter,” he said. “You go home and you see your kids. They don’t care about hockey. They just want to see you. It makes you think about other stuff.”

In addition, Letang gave a nod to the Penguins for their top-notch assistance in his various recoveries.

“The organization helped me out to seek the best doctors, tried to put me in the best spot to get better,” he said. “Both (team) ownership (groups) throughout my career, they didn’t (spare) any money. They tried to get me the best treatment for me to get better.”

Letang was facing free agency a little less than a year ago. He and the Penguins instead agreed on a new six-year deal with a $6.1 million salary cap hit.

So he plans to keep on keeping on for some time, thanks to a heavy dose of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.