SAINTE-JULIE, Quebec -- So much has changed since Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang brought the Stanley Cup back to his hometown for the first time in 2009.
Letang had just turned 22 and was coming off his second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. These visits home with the Cup, he figured at the time, would probably become a regular event, considering the Penguins had a young core that included himself, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Seven years later, Letang is now a father who has overcome a litany of injuries, like every other member of that young core he thought would lead the Penguins to multiple Stanley Cup championships by now.
He was finally able to bring the Stanley Cup back home again on Friday, drawing a crowd of thousands to this Montreal suburb where Letang grew up and learned to play hockey. The journey, and especially the detours in that journey, made the visit that much more special.
"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as a team," Letang said. "When you look at the players in our lineup, you tell yourself you have a chance to win. This is fun, but I'd say we could have won it more often if we had the right mindset. We were still young, but it's fun to be a part of this group.
"We made the final when I was 20 and I was 21 when we won the Stanley Cup. You're young mentally as a professional at that point, you're still learning. It's like when you take a 3-0 lead in a game, you sit on it a little bit. It's a bit of a natural reaction.
"So you tell yourself, 'Well, we have Crosby, Malkin, we should make the final every year.' But it doesn't work like that, and that's not what happened. So having gone through the injuries that Sid had, Malkin, Fleury, my concussions, my stroke, you see what it takes to win a second one. We realize it now, and I think we're better prepared to win another one."
Letang had a stroke in January 2014 and has sustained two concussions since then, but completed the best season of his career with 67 points (16 goals, 51 assists) in 71 games. He had three goals and 12 assists in 23 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including getting a point on all four game-winning goals in the Final against the San Jose Sharks.
"With the medical file I've built up over the last seven years, I enjoyed proving to people that I was able to reach another level," Letang said. "The Cup is the reward for that."
Letang said his day with the Cup was on June 12, when he had a chance to raise it at SAP Center after the Penguins defeated the Sharks in Game 6 of the Final. Friday was a day for his family, most notably his 3-year-old son Alexander, who ate his morning cereal and croissants out of the Cup. But Letang had to give him the bad news that daddy won't have the Cup forever.
"He was at [Game 6] so he had a chance to raise it on the ice with me, but he doesn't understand that we're going to lose it and we have to start over to try and win it again," Letang said. "I explained it to him this morning that we should take some photos because we might not see it again."
After spending some time with the family in the morning, Letang and the Cup headed for the local high school, where a crowd of thousands awaited him.
He was first welcomed at a private ceremony by the Mayor of Sainte-Julie, Suzanne Roy, who told Letang of the impact he continues to have in his hometown.
"What I want to point out in particular is the perseverance of Kristopher," Roy said. "Because yes, you are a big star who is recognized everywhere, but despite your health problems you've given all of our kids, and especially our young hockey players in Sainte-Julie, the lesson that when you persevere, when you put in the effort and you do it properly, you can still go win the Stanley Cup. And you even got the points that allowed us to see the Stanley Cup here today in Sainte-Julie. Bravo, Kristopher."
After the brief ceremony, Letang brought the Cup out to share it with his fans waiting for him in the school parking lot. A lottery system was put in place in which 300 families would get an opportunity to take a photograph with Letang and the Cup for $5, and approximately 800 tickets were given out.
Proceeds from the photo opportunity are going to local charities selected by Letang, including Participe-Don, a foundation that helps families experiencing temporary financial trouble to keep their kids enrolled in sports or other extracurricular activities.
The school was a few minutes away from the local rink where Letang learned the game, and he had a message for all the young players on hand trying to follow in his footsteps.
"I'm very blessed to have a city who is behind me like this," Letang told the crowd. "I can see how much you support me and I thought it was important to come to Sainte-Julie; this is where I grew up and where I learned how to play hockey.
"I see a lot of young hockey players here today, and I'd like to be a source of inspiration for them. As many of you know, I've had many injuries; I took a more difficult path than the one I anticipated. But I got through it and was able to prove I could come back at the same level.
"It takes hard work and having a dream and working towards making that dream a reality. That's what's important. So for all the kids, keep going after your dreams."