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Defenseman Letang returns to the ice for Penguins

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 10:27 a.m.
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 played for the Penguins on Wednesday night, 10 weeks after he had a stroke.

“When I heard I had (a stroke), the reaction was, ‘When am I going to skate again?' I always wanted to play again,” Letang said. “It's always been in the back of my mind.”

Letang missed 26 consecutive games before joining defense partner Rob Scuderi against Detroit at Consol Energy Center. His return to the lineup occurred after three weeks of practices.

General manager Ray Shero said he spent the past two weeks delaying Letang's return to games. Shero finally relented Tuesday afternoon.

“I never really had any date circled. It could have been next year. It didn't really matter to me,” Shero said. “There's really no reason to hold him out any longer.”

The exact cause of Letang's stroke is not known, Shero said. However, tests over the past two months allowed team doctors and heart specialists to rule out that playing games would place Letang at additional risk, he and Shero said.

Letang has a small hole in his heart, a birth defect that does not require surgery. He spent six weeks on blood-thinning medication after his stroke diagnosis in late January.

Letang said Wednesday there “were many options” regarding a potential cause for the stroke.

“We were not 100 percent sure on which one it is, but at the end of the day it was said it's a stroke and it comes out of nowhere and strikes you,” Letang said. “We ran all the tests possible.”

Shero described a “new normal” for Letang, one that included recognizing symptoms such as dizziness. Letang also had to distinguish between headaches and migraines that have plagued him since youth.

“That's why I've been skating a lot, just to see if it would happen on the ice,” Letang said. “It did not, so I feel comfortable. I had to adjust to it.”

The decision to return belonged to Letang after he received medical clearance, Shero said.

Letang said he had challenging conversations about returning to play with his family, specifically his wife, Catherine. Their son, Alexander, was born in November 2012.

Raising awareness for stroke is a priority for Letang, who pushed the Penguins to make his condition public within hours of his diagnosis. He is a nominee for the Masterton Trophy, which annually is awarded to the player who best exemplifies qualities of “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Letang, 26, signed an eight-year contract worth $58 million last summer. The deal, which includes a limited trade clause, begins next season.

The NHL's labor deal mandates that player contracts are guaranteed, although teams can and often purchase insurance on large contracts. Letang's new deal is the Penguins' third largest behind captain Sidney Crosby ($104.4 million) and fellow center Evgeni Malkin ($76 million).

Neither the Penguins nor the NHL said whether there was insurance on Letang's contract. Penguins ownership planned to honor Letang's contract in full even if he never played again, multiple sources told the Tribune-Review.

Shero and Letang attempted to temper expectations for this comeback, which marks Letang's third of the season. A strained knee and infected elbow forced him to miss nine and 10 games, respectively, before the stroke.

This return significantly could boost the Penguins' puck possession before the Stanley Cup playoffs open in a week. Since the Olympic break, the Penguins were 9-9-2 with a minus-66 shot differential entering Wednesday night's game. In only seven games this season with their top six defensemen in the lineup, the Penguins were 3-4-0 but had a plus-41 shot differential.

“He's our most talented defenseman,” Matt Niskanen said of Letang, who last season averaged a point per game and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman).

Added Scuderi: “He's got that unique set of skill. Everything he does looks easy.”

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall added he was “really happy for (Letang).”

“Happy for the game, too,” Kronwall said. “Letang is one of those players — they don't grow on trees.”

Staff writers Josh Yohe and Jason Mackey contributed. Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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