NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Kris Letang accepted the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy – given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey – at the NHL Awards on Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena, he had a list of people to thank, as you cannot get an award like this without an incredible support system.
It included Penguins ownership, who spared no expense to make sure he got the best care.
It included head team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, and Kris’ strength coach back in his native Montreal, Jonathan Chaimberg.
It included his teammates, like fellow French-Canadian P.O Joseph, who took to the stage to share why his mentor and friend was so deserving of this honor.
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It included his coaches, with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden in attendance at the event.
But at the very top was Kris’ wife, Catherine. At that point in his acceptance speech, Letang looked into the crowd, and addressed her directly.
“I still don’t know how you do it,” Kris said. “It’s pretty amazing that you still let me go back to work and do what I love to do on the ice. I’m truly thankful for that.” He gave a wry laugh as he continued on: “with the stress and everything that is happening in our lives every single year for some reason, you still raise those two beautiful kids.”
Alex, 10, and Victoria, 5, sat next to their mother as their Papa was recognized for how he came back stronger than ever after an extremely difficult time. It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of what Kris dealt with, as he persevered through a stroke – the second of his lifetime – and the passing of his father, Claude Fouquet, all within the span of a few weeks during the season.
“I feel pretty proud of him because he went through so much,” Catherine said. “So, I think this trophy really shows his human side. I think it shows his perseverance, his strength, his mental force. I feel that there was a lot to be proud of as a human with this trophy.”
Catherine, who has known Kris since they were in high school back in their native Quebec, has been there for her husband through the stressful situations he’s faced throughout his career. She was the one who found Kris on the floor the day he suffered his first stroke at age 26, when Alex was only about 15 months old. And she was the one who held their family together after Kris experienced the second stroke, trying to make sure their children weren’t burdened with the anxiety they felt surrounding his health scares.
“The two strokes were intense. Especially the first one, it was a longer process than the second one,” Catherine said. “It’s always so scary to know that something can happen, but we try to not think too much about it. It’s kind of just, okay, it happened, what can we do to go through this. And when it’s behind us, we try to just look forward.”
That’s why this evening was so special for all of them, even though Kris joked that the Masterton is not a trophy he ever envisioned himself winning. But it’s the one he’s most proud of, “because today I’m a father, and my kids will see this in the house, and they’re going to know I never gave up in anything. So, this is our family trophy,” he said.
For the whole crew to get dressed up and enjoy a night in Nashville was quality family time, with the kids having the best night. “They’ve been part of some events, but to have all four of us together, especially for an award that kind of represents the family and everything we go through together, it’s special,” Kris said.
Victoria was a ball of energy, with Catherine laughing that she was too excited to be there. While Alex was a little more reserved, he said he was also really excited about the event, especially to walk the red carpet in a custom suit from GLORIUS that’s a mini replica of one Kris has. A couple of Penguins fans even asked for his autograph, while he wanted a few of his own from Kris’ peers.
“He almost requested Connor McDavid’s autograph in the bathroom,” Kris said with a laugh. “But that’s what it’s all about. To be honest, All-Star Game, (NHL) Awards, that’s his night. He watches every single game and he sees all those stars on TV, and he wants to meet them. Obviously, I have the chance to be able to make it happen for him. So, I think that’s the highlight of our night.”
Right now, Kris is in a good place after such an up and down season that was really hard emotionally. He didn’t want to come to the rink when he was sorting through those difficult feelings, because he didn’t want to be a distraction to his teammates. But when the entire group traveled to Montreal at the end of a long road trip to be there for Kris and his family at Claude’s funeral, that triggered something in the Penguins defenseman.
“That’s at the point where my wife said, you should actually go back to the rink and change your mind and try to forget about what happened in the last few months and try to try to get back on track, and the guys will be there for you,” Kris said. “I think that’s where it all started.”
After returning to the lineup on Jan. 24, Letang recorded 10 goals, 15 assists and 25 points in 35 games. And while the year had a tough ending from a team standpoint, the silver lining for Letang from a personal standpoint is that he’s gotten time to clear his head. It’s now business as usual when it comes to his training and preparation, with Letang saying he just wants to get back at it and make sure the Penguins have a strong season.
At age 36, that dedication to ice hockey is still fierce – but of course, Kris’ love for his family is even deeper. Catherine trusts Kris to make the right decisions regarding his health from a physical standpoint, which is always the priority – saying that he is doing everything within his power to take care of his body.
“I’m his wife, so I feel that my job is to support him, and as long as the passion is in him and he loves the game more than he’s scared, that’s the only thing I can do,” she said. “I feel that the passion is still really strong. I think he has a lot of time to take care of himself. So, I think that’s one of the big main aspects of trying to get back to the game, is having the time to work out, be by yourself, do everything you need to be able to get healthy again.”