Tempe, Arizona Pittsburgh Penguins They’re supposed to be home with their families now, getting some rest after a 10-day road trip, and getting ready for Canucks At PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.
They are not.
The penguins had just been defeated Coyote, 4-1, Sunday night, ending their six-game losing streak. Their travel plan was to immediately return to Pittsburgh, where they had not been since leaving for the December 31 Winter Classic.
Instead, they flew in the middle of the night to Montreal, arriving at 4 am, then slept for a brief period of time before attending the funeral of Claude Fouquet, father of Chris Letang.
While the Penguins were off on the western swing of the road trip that took them through Las Vegas and Phoenix, some of the team’s veterans got together with the coaching staff to discuss a shared desire to attend Fouquet’s funeral in Quebec.
Not only was Mike Sullivan involved in the plan, he was also one of the people driving the decision.
The Penguins are then scheduled to head home later today, when they won’t have much time to prepare for Tuesday’s game.
But then, for this group, taking care of his teammates is more important than getting a certain amount of rest before a game.
This is a particularly vivid illustration of how important Letang is to everyone on this team.
It’s been a hellish season for 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 those of the younger man due to his extraordinary condition.
Signing Letang was perfect because it happened in Montreal, of all places, his beloved hometown that also happened to host the NHL Draft. So, Letang signed the deal in Montreal, the city that prepared him for it NHL stardom. Fouquet was also instrumental in this. He had his health, his family, he thought the Penguins were still Stanley Cup contenders, and he had six more years in the black and gold.
Everything was perfect.
Until it was not.
In October and November, he played perhaps the worst hockey in his career.
Letang suffered a stroke for the second time in his life on November 28, hours after the Penguins’ training. That he made his return to the NHL Championship in less than two weeks is a testament to his bravery and the incredible medical care he received from the athletic trainers and doctors that day. However, it was a traumatic experience for Letang, his family, and his teammates.
Letang finally started to play better when he suffered a lower body injury that would have ruled him out of the Winter Classic. But he never made his way to Fenway Park at all, because then news arrived that his father had died in Montreal.
“What a good kid,” former general manager Jim Rutherford said. “He really is. Life seems to have hit him the hardest. But he’s hard. He’ll be fine.”
In the event that Letang needed their support, his teammates made the decision to sacrifice time with their families to be with him in Montreal.
It was not an easy logistical issue for the organization. A high-ranking member of the Penguins’ front office had to fly to Phoenix on Sunday with a box of essentials: Penguins’ passports. Their road trip took them to Boston, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. To enter Canada, passports are required.
So, with documents in hand after Sunday’s game, the Penguins finally made the decision to attend the funeral. It was not a simple choice. The penguins had to consider that funerals are special, emotionally charged experiences. They wanted to be there, yes, but they also wanted to respect Letang’s and his family’s privacy.
Letang was with his teammates Sidney Crosby And Evgeny Malkin Since 2006. For 17 years, these three players have been the foundation of the Penguins’ might, and along the way, it’s become clear that the friendship these three share is stronger than the on-ice magic they still regularly display.
They are best friends. When Crosby was honored for playing in 1,000 NHL games two years ago, he remained composed throughout the ceremony.
Then, Letang’s and Malkin’s faces flashed on the scoreboard, each delivering a message. Suddenly, tears flowed from Crosby’s face.
These are franchise icons, the three players responsible for a magical time in Pittsburgh sports history. Along the way, they became so close that the idea of playing any other franchise this past summer suddenly seemed ridiculous. They were brothers for life, on and off the ice.
There were tears in Montreal today, too.
But I bet, on a very sad day for Letang and his family, the defender who’s been through a lot this season felt a little better, a little more supported, a little more loved and a little more comfortable. Knowing that Crosby and Malkin—along with 20 other colleagues—were on hand came in handy.
Good for penguins. Good for the property to handle the finances of the move. Good for Sullivan and his staff for putting his teammate’s love ahead of previous plans. Good for the guys who paid to be there for their brother.
Good for Letang too. He’s living his life the right way, which is why he’s so likable in this locker room. He lost a family member that he loved, and that is a very difficult thing to get over.
But he was surrounded by family in Montreal on Monday. A few dozen relatives are not blood relatives, but they are family nonetheless.
(Photo: Charles LeClair/USA Today)