Penguins defenseman Kris Letang will return to the lineup tonight against Detroit at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was a conversation they had frequently in recent weeks.
Kris Letang, cleared medically to return from a stroke, would ask Penguins general manager Ray Shero if he could play.
Shero would stall, suggesting that the dynamic defenseman give it the weekend or a few days, whatever seemed reasonable, and gauge how he was feeling then.
This week, Letang tried a new tactic. He went puppy-dog-eyes on Shero.
“Finally, he was looking at me like, ‘Don’t you want me to play?’ ” Shero said Wednesday, hours before Letang returned to the Penguins lineup for a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Consol Energy Center— with the nervous Shero’s blessing, if also some nerves.
The sellout crowd gave Letang a standing ovation when he was announced as a starter.
Letang, 26, has had to rethink the way he evaluates how he feels. He still has dizziness at times because of stroke-related vestibular problems. The Penguins got a lesson in the vestibular system when center Sidney Crosby had balance and spatial recognition irregularities while recovering from a concussion and neck injury.
“The doctors have told him at times if he feels this, this is the new normal for Kris,” Shero said.
Although various exercises might eventually lessen or eradicate the symptoms, Letang acknowledged he is learning to live with them and not panic when they arise.
“That’s why I’ve been skating,” said Letang, who had the stroke Jan. 29 and has been skating or practicing for several weeks. “I have the green light [medically], but I’ve been skating a lot just to see if it would happen on the ice, but it did not.
“It’s normal for me. I have to adjust to it.”
Letang has had migraines for years, and Shero said doctors have assured Letang that “any headaches he may have now in the morning are not stroke-related.”
The Penguins and Letang have learned enough about his medical situation that they will not hover.
“Some of the monitoring of Kris is going to be self-monitoring,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I’m not going to ask him after every shift or every good pass or bad pass.”
While the cause of Letang’s stroke remains undetermined, Shero and Letang indicated that by process of elimination, it would seem to be a tiny hole in his heart that was discovered in extensive testing. Shero said tests searching for other causes, such as a blood clot, turned up nothing. Those tests also led to Letang getting an OK from doctors — team doctors and others whose advice he sought — to resume playing.
“Even a few weeks ago, when he gets re-scanned again in everything from blood vessels to heart function, all these things, everything is really good,” Shero said. “To return to play ice hockey, he is at no further risk to suffer a stroke than he would be going to the grocery store.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy for Shero to give in to what he called Letang’s constant “begging” to play.
“The easiest question for anybody, for me, is why don’t we just wait and we’ll try in October or whatever,” Shero said. “We have assurances that hockey did not cause the stroke. Returning to play will not cause a stroke. Playing [Wednesday] vs. waiting until October or 10 years from now is not going to change that.”
Still, Shero expected to be nervous watching Letang’s first game. He likely wasn’t the only one.
“My family is scared,” Letang said, “but I just made sure they understand the situation. I had some doctors talk to the family, to assure them.”
Asked before the game if he was scared, Letang smiled.
“I’m nervous — it’s been a long time without playing — but about my situation, not at all,” he said. “I’m not scared to go out there and play.”
Fighting back from a stroke earned Letang the nomination as the Penguins’ candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which goes to the NHL player who best displays the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
While the Penguins were thrilled to get back the 2013 finalist for the Norris Trophy that goes to the NHL’s top defenseman — “We do know that a healthy Kris Letang is important to our hockey team, makes us better,” Shero said — his teammates saw a bigger picture.
“It’s an incredibly serious injury, and it’s something that I’m sure he’ll have to be aware of for the rest of his life, but, as long as the doctors have given the clearance — and it seems he’s taken a barrage of tests — we’re glad to have him back,” Letang’s defense partner Rob Scuderi said.
“It’s a big thing to come back from.”
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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