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Kovacevic: Letang's return one for the heart

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 11:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang knocks the puck away from the Red Wings' Tomas Jurco in the second period Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang skates against the Red Wings on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang defends on the Red Wings' Riley Sheahan in the first period Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

Kris Letang has a hole in his heart, but don't dare doubt its size or strength.

At 8:08 p.m. Wednesday, as soon as his skates once again touched Consol Energy Center's ice — and yes, they really do make contact — the crowd let out a loud roar to welcome back the Penguins' franchise defenseman 10 weeks after the stroke that had cast his career in doubt.

Check that, his life.

And in that moment, know that Ray Shero cringed from his suite high above.

As did Letang's family and friends watching from the seats or TV sets in Quebec.

As did you and I and so many others who care far more about the person than the player. Even on a day when our emotions had been put through the wringer of the stabbings at Franklin Regional High School, this came with a queasy feeling.

As for Letang himself?

“I'm nervous because it's been a long time since I've played,” he was telling us after the morning skate. “About my situation? Not at all.”

Believe that. Really.

For one, Letang says so. And has shown it. From the day he received his initial clearance from doctors to play anytime he felt comfortable — two weeks ago — he's been a relentless rink rat, same as ever. He's even tagged along with the team on the road. You should have seen him after the victory last week in Winnipeg, seated in a full suit next to Sidney Crosby and gushing to the captain about the game as if he'd just logged 30 minutes.

For another, he reported no problems at all following the 4-3 shootout victory over the Red Wings. He logged a fairly normal 22:30 of ice, had a couple hiccups in the Penguins' end but also made a trademark rush up ice to set up Jussi Jokinen's go-ahead goal in the third period. Stops, pivots, acceleration, the whole deal.

“I felt fine,” Letang said afterward. “The only issues were my timing, like I expected, but that will come. Overall, it was OK.”

He seemed much more moved by the affection he was shown by the 18,620 on hand, many of whom brought welcome-back signs and banners.

“It's one thing we always say about Pittsburgh, how great the fans are,” he said. “The ovation, it was pretty great. I really appreciate it. All through this, the fans were very understanding with me taking my time. It was …”

He paused for a moment.

“It was pretty emotional.”

Hear that?

Letang doesn't just want to return. He needs it. He doesn't love hockey. He lives it. Say what you will about athletes' often irrational drive to play through injury and illness, but this confidence has to start there.

“I wanted to come back,” he said when asked about his first thought after the stroke.

What's infinitely more important here, though, is that Letang couldn't be better informed about his condition. He's heard, read and learned about just about everything. He's been put through tests by some of the region's best cardiologists. He's been put through practices Dan Bylsma called “no different than those for any of our guys,” then monitored for effects. He's been in touch “almost every day” with doctors, per his account.

At the same time, no one is perfect, including doctors. So I'm guessing I'm no different than you in wondering how anyone could give the thumbs-up for a recent stroke victim to resume playing hockey at its highest level, the Stanley Cup playoffs, just three months later. To be honest, it wasn't until Shero spoke the words Wednesday morning — “Kris Letang will return to play tonight” — that I'd begun to process the possibility.

Even now that he's back, it seems ... wow, incredible. I mean, we're talking about a hole in the heart. A stroke. A scene in January in which Letang was found on his floor by his mother. Not to mentions a few episodes of dizziness that followed, related or not.

Not exactly “upper-body” territory.

And that's undoubtedly why Shero called the Penguins part of Letang's “family” and sounded more like a father in describing how he repeatedly rejected Letang's pleas to return the past two weeks. He just wanted to wait.

“I guess the easiest question anyone can ask me is, well, why don't we just wait and try this again in October or whatever?” Shero said. “Hockey did not cause the stroke. Returning to play will not cause a stroke. Playing tonight vs. waiting until October or 10 years from now is not going to change that. Resting and playing Xbox is not going to make him better.”

That notion clearly meant a lot to Shero. So I asked: Did doctors tell him hockey didn't cause the stroke?

“Correct,” he replied.

And the natural follow-up: How could doctors determine such a thing?

“I think, with all their medical testing, there was nothing that showed it was caused by anything,” Shero said. “All the heart functions, blood vessels, everything, it's all still really good. His return to ice hockey … he's at no further risk than if he went to the grocery store.”

Letang essentially backed that: “Right from the start, they told me it's something that can happen whenever.”

I hope they're right. But it's only human to look at this scenario and worry, whether rational or not, medically supported or not.

Be sure Shero will be worrying for a long time. Admirably, he stepped forward Wednesday so that we could all see the call, the responsibility was his.

“How will I feel?” Shero asked, looking ahead to faceoff. “I'll be a little nervous. I told Kris that.”

Be sure that Letang's family — wife Catherine and infant son Alexander — as well as all his loved ones will worry.

“My family is scared,” Letang said, “I had to make sure they understand the situation. I had some doctors talk to my family to reassure them.”

But Letang needs to worry, too, at least to the extent that he stays open and honest with doctors. Shero called this “the new normal for Kris,” and Letang must accept that. No playing hero. Not now and not for Game 7 against the Flyers. This is, as defense partner Rob Scuderi put it, “an incredibly serious issue, and he needs to be aware of it the rest of his life.”

One stride at a time.

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