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Determined: Letang's journey back to the ice

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins' practice facility, UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, is located in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry Township.

In the early evening of September 24, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang made his normal trek to the facility, which is a short drive from his home. It's a drive he's made hundreds of times over the past two years, since the complex was erected in 2015, for practices and injury treatments.

But that day's drive was unlike any of those previous times.

On that unusually warm and sunny day in late September, Letang's vehicle cruised down Interstate 279. A nervous energy began to pulsate inside him, and its strength grew with each passing mile.

UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex was hosting its first-ever NHL preseason game between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues as part of Kraft Hockeyville USA.

Letang, 30, has played in over 700 career NHL games over the course of a decade. He's played on the league's biggest stage - the Stanley Cup Final - on three occasions.

So it would seem odd that a player like Letang would be nervous before an exhibition game in September.

But this wasn't an ordinary exhibition game for Letang. It was his comeback.

Letang hadn't played in an NHL game in over seven months, dating back to an innocuous Feb. 21 game in Carolina. After that contest, Letang was sidelined due to a herniated disc in his neck.

After an attempt to treat the injury, Letang underwent surgery in early April. A grueling and arduous rehab program followed. The past seven months had been filled with a slow, steady rehab progression - often times physically and mentally exhausting.

Letang suffered through many dark days. But though the sun was setting as he drove to UPMC, Letang could finally see the light. He was a few hours away from once again playing the game that he loves.

"I'm pretty excited and a little nervous," Letang told the media that morning following the Penguins' morning skate. "It's been a while since I played in a real game. I'm looking forward to it."

That nervousness, which had been built over the course of those seven months, only intensified as the 8 o'clock puck drop grew closer and closer and closer.

Letang was so eager to play that he couldn't contain his thoughts. Even his formerly instinctive habits had been lost during his absence. Letang had used the same pre-game routine since his teenage years in junior hockey. Suddenly, he couldn't remember it.

"It was kind of weird. I was trying to think what I was doing (seven) months ago," he said. "I couldn't remember my routine going on the ice and warm-ups."

Inside the Penguins' locker room, hanging above the whiteboard is a clock. The time was ticking down for the start of warm-ups. The seconds felt like minutes, the minutes felt like hours.

Letang strapped on his gear, laced up his skates and put on that old, familiar No. 58 jersey. He looked down at his shoulder and saw an upside-down "A" staring back at him.

The clock ticked down to its final minutes. The entire team lined up in the hallway leading to the ice. Letang found his normal position in line. Several teammates flashed smiles of acknowledgment to Letang as they passed. He returned the acknowledgment.

Someone shouted: "Let's go boys!"

The line started to move. Led by goaltender Matt Murray, the Penguins stepped onto the ice one-by-one in front of a robust crowd.  

Letang floated toward the ice with numb feet, each step feeling like a surreal dream, until he finally arrived at the precipice. With a swift thrust of his leg, Letang's blade cut into the ice surface.

Letang glided along the ice with his signature loose pant-strap floating behind in the wind. It was a moment 154 days in the making, a seven-month buildup of anticipation culminating in a cathartic sprint of combustible force.

It was the conclusion of a remarkable journey, a journey that some doubted would be possible. When the Penguins announced on April 5 that Letang would undergo surgery on his neck, the media used phrases like "career threatening" and "never be the same."

But there was never a doubt in Letang's mind that he would not only return, but that he would return to his normal All-Star level form.

Letang knew this day would come. His determination alone would make it so. The only question was when it would come.

The answer to that question was September 24th in front of a national television audience on NBC Sports Network.

Letang was back, and the hockey world bore witness.

Letang knew something was wrong immediately.

After he was on the negative end of a hit from behind by a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2016 Eastern Conference Final he felt pain in his neck. 

"I had issues turning my neck. I couldn't look right or left," he said.

Letang was able to turn his neck the following day and the issue wasn't bad enough at that time to force him out of the lineup. Not only did Letang finish the playoffs by playing in every game, he would score the eventual Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 at San Jose.

During the offseason Letang had a chance to rest the injury and let it heal. He underwent various treatments and the issue appeared to have subsided.

But the pain would soon return once Letang began engaging in physical play during the following year's training camp.

"When I showed up to camp last year, it started bothering me when I was getting hit again," he said. "We went over a bunch of stuff (I had to do) to get better. Every month I was trying to get better."

Letang visited several different doctors, looking for a solution to the problem. But as the season dragged on, things weren't getting better. In fact, it was getting worse because the accumulative effect of the hits he sustained throughout the year.

After Pittsburgh's contest in Carolina on Feb. 21, the team decided to pull Letang out of the lineup and tried to alleviate the pain and rest the injury.

"We tried for a month to let it heal," Letang said. "We had a rehab program to get my spine stretched. Everything was going well. I was feeling a lot better."

Letang was feeling so much better that he had decided that the time had come to return. He discussed it with the medical staff and was only a few days away from his selected date.

But then…

"In the gym I was feeling discomfort," Letang said. "We did another test and it revealed that I had a major problem that needed emergency surgery."

All the more frustrating was that Letang was on the cusp of coming back.

"It was tough because I was close," he said. "I told them on Tuesday that I wanted to play Saturday. Then on the Wednesday or Thursday I started having discomfort. That's where we found it. It was really frustrating."

An MRI revealed to doctors that another issue had arisen. And thankfully, they caught it just in time.

"Suddenly we had another problem out of the blue," Letang said. "If I had played again it would probably have gotten damaged even more. We're kind of lucky that we caught it. I'm lucky to have great doctors around me."

The medical staff decided an immediate surgery - within a month - was necessary to avoid permanent damage.

"The doctors didn't give me any choice. They told me we need to find a surgeon and that's it," Letang said. "To go through that type of surgery was scary, too."

Letang underwent successful surgery on April 13th, the day after the Penguins opened the postseason in Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There is no doubt that the most difficult part of Letang's journey was post-surgery. He was in a lot of pain and, once again, couldn't turn his head as it was locked in a collar. Even simple every day tasks like using the restroom or eating were difficult, and driving wasn't permitted.

"When I woke up (from surgery) it was hard. It was a tough first two weeks," Letang said. "There is a lot that goes through your mind.

"The first few days were pretty tough. It was more mentally."

By his side during those early dark days and throughout the recovery process was his wife, Catherine. She was at the hospital every day while Kris was bedridden and often times she would sleep in his room.

Once Letang was released from the hospital, Catherine had to chaperone him to wherever he needed to be, whether it was for a doctor visit or just to a restaurant for dinner.

"My wife was huge for me. She did a lot, taking care of everything," Letang said. "Sleeping in my room. Making sure I had everything I needed. She drove me everywhere. Tried to give me a distraction. She was really helpful. I'm glad I had her."

The situation wasn't just mentally taxing for Kris and Catherine. Their 4-year-old son, Alex, couldn't understand what was happening.

"A bunch of times in the street he would ask random people, 'Did you hurt my father? Who hurt my father?'" Letang said. "He noticed that I couldn't really move. He was trying to bring me stuff."

Catherine and Alex were as much a part of Letang's recovery as anyone.

"They were the moment of happiness in my day when they were with me," Letang said. "It was good to have them."

Letang's recovery was a long and slow process, filled with markers, countless doctor visits and small steps. The first step was just getting out of the collar and having mobility once again in his neck. But the majority of the time, Letang was simply resting his injury.

Letang took his first step back in the gym after being medically cleared to begin riding a stationary bike. It wasn't much. But at least it was something. It was also a much-needed mental relief for the blueliner.

"I won't tell you that when I got out of the surgery room that I thought I would get back quickly," Letang said. "But when I started to exercise and feel more like myself, going on the ice, it was a lot better."

Letang was still very limited early on. He wasn't allowed to do any jumping, running, heavy lifting, overhead activities or anything that put weight on his shoulders. He made frequent trips to New York for MRIs and CTs. Each successful visit was followed by another step in the gym.

In July, Letang skated for the first time. But the final hurdle came on Sept. 5. That's when he was cleared for contact.

Letang began the team's training camp with full participation. After a week of handling physical contact, doctors gave Letang their blessing to return to the ice.

"The good thing now is he's probably healthier than he's ever been and feeling good going into the season," general manager Jim Rutherford said on the cusp of camp. "I expect that Kris is going to have one of his best years ever."

For Letang, there was relief and excitement as the team reconnected to begin their second consecutive Stanley Cup title defense. The worst was behind him.

"It was long," Letang sighed while recalling the process, "but I'm glad everything is OK now."

The Penguins and Blues players stood on the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex ice as the U.S. national anthem was being sung.

Letang bowed his head, his long, dark hair shielding his face, eyes closed. It was a moment of quiet reflection. Five months earlier he was lying in a hospital bed, immobilized and in pain.  

The memories of his journey were still fresh, the frustrations of slow progress, the exuberance of small achievements, the long hours in the gym and receiving treatments, endless doctor visits and his family's support through his struggle.

It all culminated in this moment, and the only thing Letang could feel was gratitude.

"I was just glad to be on the ice for a little moment," he said following the game. "It'd been a while. I was just glad to be out there playing the game I love."

That nervous energy that had coursed through Letang's body all day reached its zenith as he watched the puck fall from the official's hand at center ice.

St. Louis won the faceoff and retreated into its own zone. A muffed pass led to a turnover and winger Jake Guentzel had a scoring chance in the slot. Guentzel's shot, however, hit the post. That was six seconds into the game.

The Blues' clearing attempt was corralled by a pinching Letang at the wall. He chipped the puck to Guentzel in the corner. It was the first time Letang had made a hockey play in seven months. 

Letang went to the bench for a line change. By then the nerves had dissipated. The past seven months evaporated into the background. All that was left was to play the game.

"The first period was like putting my tippy toe in the water," Letang said. "After that it was going well. I was able to get my timing back a little bit more.

"I felt a little bit on my heels at times. But it came back pretty quick."

Letang went through the normal motions of the game: skating, passing, shooting, decision making, positioning, taking hits, delivering hits. Letang played like the past seven months were wiped from history.

"It looks like he hasn't missed a step," fellow defenseman Olli Maatta observed. "He looks awesome out there. It looks like he could play 40 minutes if he wanted to. That's his talent and hard work he puts in."

"It's great. He's such a huge part of this team," blueliner Ian Cole said. "He's such a huge asset to this team. Watching him play and get back out there, getting his feet wet with some real game action and not just intersquad stuff, real hitting, real game. I thought he handled it really well. I thought he played great."

Letang has been the undisputed leader of the team's defensemen, and their biggest workhorse. He has logged an average of 25-plus minutes a game over the past three seasons, and a career-high 26:56 per game in 2015-16.

Letang's goal all along was to be the player he once was. Playing over 25 minutes a game and playing in all situations - even strength, power play and penalty killing.

Letang accomplished all of those goals against the Blues. It was a testament to his commitment, work ethic and training that he was able to return in such great condition and shape.

But the most important part was just being there.

"I was really happy just to be out there having fun," Letang said. "It was a pretty cool thing to do when five months ago I had surgery. It was fun."

After the game Letang sat in his locker stall. The media swarmed. He answered their questions with honesty and a genuine smile. The media moved on and left Letang alone. He took off his equipment, carefully hanging each piece as he had done for the past decade.

Letang walked out of the locker room leaving the past seven months behind. It marked the end of one journey, and the beginning of a new one.

"That first step is out of the way," Letang said, "and I can focus on playing my game now.

"Now it's back to business."

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