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Starkey: Letang inspired by late friend

| Friday, May 8, 2009

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang follows a ritual before every game.

He showers, then stretches, then sits alone in silence.

Invariably, his attention turns to his late best friend, Luc Bourdon, a Vancouver Canucks prospect who was killed in a motorcycle accident last spring.

"I'm always thinking about him being with me in spirit," Letang says through a thick French-Canadian accent. "I don't know what you call it in English• Prayer• But I know Luc is always there for me."

As sure as the scruff on Letang's 22-year-old face, Bourdon was part of that wild center-ice celebration Wednesday night at Mellon Arena. The one that erupted after Letang beat the Washington Capitals on a slap shot at 11:23 of overtime.

Even as jubilant teammates mobbed him, Letang was thinking of his friend.

"I knew right away he was there," Letang said Thursday after practice. "In the moment, you're like, 'Oh my God, the game is done; I'm so tired.' But I know he was there."

If all had gone according to plan, the two young defensemen would be reveling in each other's success, trading texts after their playoff games.

Bourdon would be playing for the Canucks in their series against the Chicago Blackhawks, and he surely would have fired a text the other night, congratulating Letang on his goal and maybe ribbing him about the puck going in on a deflection.

Their careers followed a startlingly similar track after they met at age 14 at a summer hockey camp in Burlington, Vt.

Both were drafted by Val-d'Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Both finished their first junior season with 32 points. Both were drafted into the NHL in 2005 - Letang leading off the third round; Bourdon 10th overall, nine picks after the Penguins took Sidney Crosby.

The two won a World Junior Championship together for Canada in 2006 and made their NHL teams after their second training camps. Both were returned to junior, won another World Junior title in 2007 and returned to the NHL for parts of last season.

Roommates at World Juniors, they worked the power play and killed penalties together.

And shared a lot of laughs.

"When we were in junior, he bought a car for, like, 500 bucks, and we'd drive it all over the place," Letang recalled in a story we did together for The Hockey News shortly after Bourdon's death. "He didn't care how people saw him. We were the same. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy life."

That led to a story about World Juniors, when all the players lived together in a big house.

Letang laughed as he told it.

"One time, Steve Downie (now with the Tampa Bay Lightning) was playing guitar, and it was kind of annoying because he didn't know how to play," Letang said. "Luc was a great guitarist, and he was kind of ticked off because Steve was always playing in front of everybody in the lounge, so Luc took the guitar and ripped all the strings off.

"Steve was pretty ticked off."

The Penguins were preparing for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final when Letang received the phone call that changed his life. It was from his agent, informing him that Bourdon had died instantly near his native Shippagan, New Brunswick, when his bike veered into a truck on a winding, two-lane road.

Teammates helped Letang deal with the devastation.

"It was hard on him," says winger Pascal Dupuis. "That was his best friend."

As Dupuis attests, Letang has handled the situation admirably. He stepped into an unexpectedly large role this season and responded with 33 points. He took the left point on the power play for good when Ryan Whitney was dealt to Anaheim.

Despite some rough moments and injury issues in the playoffs -- Letang was scratched for a game in the first round -- he has responded with six points, an even plus-minus rating and a big-time battle level.

The Penguins need Letang at the top of his game.

Meanwhile, he remains in regular touch with Bourdon's mother, Suzanne, and girlfriend, Charlene Ward. Those two were watching Game 3 together in New Brunswick. They texted Letang afterward.

Their message?

Letang recounted it with a smile.

"Just, 'Good luck, we're happy for you ... and nice goal.'"

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