Yohe: Penguins go the extra mile for Kris Letang during time of grief

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are supposed to be home with their families now, getting some rest following a 10-day road trip, preparing for the Canucks at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.

They are not.

The Penguins had just defeated the coyotes, 4-1, on Sunday night, ending a six-game losing streak. Their travel plan was to immediately return to Pittsburgh, where they haven’t been since leaving for the Winter Classic on Dec. 31.

Instead, they traveled through the middle of the night to Montreal, arriving at 4 am Then, they slept for a brief period of time before attending the funeral of Claude Fouquet, father of Chris Letang.

While the Penguins were on the Western swing of the road trip that took them through Las Vegas and Phoenix, some of the team’s veterans came together with the coaching staff to discuss a mutual desire to attend Fouquet’s funeral in Quebec.

Mike Sullivan was not only on board with the plan but was one of the people who spearheaded the decision.

The Penguins were then set to return home later today, where they won’t have much time to prepare for Tuesday’s game.

But then, for this group, taking care of teammates is more important than obtaining a certain amount of rest before a game.

This is a particularly vivid illustration of how much Letang means to everyone on this team.

It’s been a hellish season for the 35-year-old Letang. What should have been a storybook chapter has turned into a nightmare. Letang signed a new, six-year contract with the Penguins in July. Signing him was always their priority, his dynamic physical skills mirroring that of a younger man because of his extraordinary conditioning.

So perfect was Letang’s signing that it took place in Montreal, of all places, his beloved hometown that happened to be hosting the NHL Draft. So, Letang signed the deal in Montreal, the city that groomed him for NHL stardom. Fouquet was instrumental in that, too. He had his health di lui, his family di lui, he believed the Penguins to still be Stanley Cup contenders, and he had six more years in black and gold.

Everything was perfect.

Until it wasn’t.

In October and November, he produced perhaps the worst hockey of his career.

Letang suffered a stroke for the second time in his life on Nov. 28, hours after a Penguins practice. That he returned to NHL action in less than two weeks is a testament to his courage and the superb medical attention he received from the Penguins’ athletic trainers and physicians that day. Still, it was a jarring experience for Letang, his family and his teammates.

Letang was finally starting to play better when he sustained a lower-body injury that was going to keep him out of the Winter Classic. But he never made his way to Fenway Park at all, because news then arrived that his father had died in Montreal.

“Such a good kid,” former general manager Jim Rutherford said. “He really is. Life seems to hit him harder than most. But he’s tough. He’ll be OK.”

In case Letang needed their support, his teammates made the decision to sacrifice time with their families to be with him in Montreal.

It wasn’t an easy logistical matter for the organization. A high-ranking member of the Penguins’ front office had to fly to Phoenix on Sunday with a box of necessities: the Penguins’ passports. Their road trip had taken them to Boston, Las Vegas and Phoenix. To enter Canada, however, passports are required.

So, with the documents in hand following Sunday’s game, the Penguins ultimately made the decision to attend the funeral. It wasn’t a choice that came lightly. The Penguins had to consider that funerals are private, emotionally charged experiences. They wanted to be there, yes, but they also wanted to respect the privacy of Letang and his family.

Letang has been teammates with Sidney Crosby and Yevgeny Malkin since 2006. For 17 years, these three players have been the foundation of the mighty Penguins and, along the way, it’s become clear the friendship these three share is even more powerful than the on-ice magic they still regularly showcase.

They are best friends. When Crosby was honored for playing in 1,000 career NHL games a couple of years back, he remained composed during the ceremony.

Then, the faces of Letang and Malkin flashed on the scoreboard, with each delivering a message. Suddenly, the tears flowed from Crosby’s face of him.

These are franchise icons, the three players most responsible for a magical time in Pittsburgh sports history. Along the way, they’ve become so close that the idea of ​​playing for any other franchise last summer suddenly seemed absurd. They were brothers for life, on and off the ice.

There were tears in Montreal today, too.

But I’d bet, in what is a horribly sad day for Letang and his family, that the defenseman who has been through so much this season felt a little better, a little more supported, a little more loved and a little more at ease knowing Crosby and Malkin — along with 20 other teammates — were on hand.

Good for the Penguins. Good for ownership for handling the finances of this move. Good for Sullivan and his staff for putting the love of a teammate before previous plans. Good for the players who pushed to be there for their brother.

Good for Letang, too. He lives his life the right way, which is why he is so beloved in that locker room. He lost a member of his family that he loved, and that is a terribly difficult thing to overcome.

But he was surrounded by family in Montreal on Monday. A couple dozen weren’t blood relatives, but are family nonetheless.

(Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

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