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Penguins' Letang cleared to play 2 months after suffering stroke

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2013 file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh. Letang will play on Wednesday night, April 9, 2014, against the Detroit Red Wings, more than two months after suffering a stroke. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

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FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2013 file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh. Letang will play on Wednesday night, April 9, 2014, against the Detroit Red Wings, more than two months after suffering a stroke. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - When Kris Letang learned he had a stroke, the first thoughts were about when he'd return to skating and playing in the NHL.

"It's always been in the back of my mind (that) I wanted to come back," Letang said.

Even after doctors cleared the Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman to skate, take full contact and play games, general manager Ray Shero kept making him wait. Shero wanted Letang to make sure he felt OK as time went on.

Finally on Tuesday, the 26-year-old Montreal native got the go-ahead to come back Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, 10 weeks after he suffered the stroke.

The most important element of the decision to let Letang return was the assurance from doctors that hockey wasn't the reason for the stroke and won't be to blame in the future.

"We have assurances and he has assurances that hockey did not cause the stroke. Return to play will not cause the stroke," Shero said Wednesday morning at Consol Energy Center. "To return to play ice hockey, he's at no further risk to suffer a stroke than he would be going to the grocery store."

According to Shero, the hole in Letang's heart is something doctors have addressed and are continuing to address and tests on blood flow to the heart and brain have all come back normal.

That's why Letang is able to play, even as some dizziness and headaches are to be expected as part of what Shero called the "new normal." Letang kept skating to test himself to see if the dizziness—a stroke symptom—would pop up, and it didn't.

But headaches were part of his life before and they'll continue to be. Letang knows he also must accept the uncertainty that comes with experiencing strokes, in general.

"Right from the start they told me it's something that can happen whenever: sitting around, walking around," Letang said. "I'm not scared to go out there and play. I just feel comfortable right now."

With the medical clearance that hockey wouldn't make Letang any more susceptible to having a stroke than if he never played again, Shero's biggest question then became: Why couldn't everyone just wait? What doctors told them is that waiting really wouldn't help anything.

"Resting and playing Xbox is not going to make him better," Shero said before clarifying that he doesn't know if Letang plays Xbox. "All that information, how he feels both on and off the ice that he's very comfortable, the doctors are very comfortable."

That doesn't mean everyone is comfortable. Shero acknowledged being nervous, and Letang's wife, Catherine, who found him on the ground after the Jan. 29 stroke, and the rest of his family had enough questions that the defenceman brought doctors in to reassure everyone.

Shero had to explain his nerves to Letang.

"He kind of smiled at me, and I said, 'Well, you've got to understand that when you came back from a concussion from getting hit in Montreal, that first game I was nervous. When Sidney Crosby came back, I was a little nervous. A guy comes back from a shoulder (injury), I'm a little nervous. A little different now,'" Shero recalled. "And he just smiled and he said, 'You and Catherine are going to be nervous.' But he had a big smile on his face, but I think that's human nature."

Coach Dan Bylsma, the man who will be managing Letang's ice time in his first game back and moving forward, knows he'll have his own emotions.

"When a person comes back from a shoulder injury, you see him take a first hit and you're a little nervous about that. I don't feel that way about Kris coming back," Bylsma said. "I won't be holding my breath, but I'll be real happy to see him out there playing and competing and being able to play the game."

Added Crosby: "I'm happy to see him back. It's been a long process for him and probably an uneasy one."

Uneasy, but not one that has Letang worried. Instead, he's thinking as a Norris Trophy finalist who has missed a total of 45 games this season.

"I'm nervous," he said. "It's been a long time without playing. But about my situation, not at all."

Bylsma said Letang will team up with veteran Rob Scuderi, who isn't at all concerned about his younger defence partner getting back up to speed.

"Kris is one of those guys that could take a year off and step on the ice and just look amazing, because he's just got such a unique skill-set," Scuderi said. "He's an incredibly smooth skater, he's got a great shot. Everything thing he does looks easy."

Letang has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 games this season.

The Penguins have already clinched the Metropolitan Division and will be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Asked how Letang's return will affect a Pittsburgh team that has dealt with injuries all season and will be without star forward Evgeni Malkin until the start of the playoffs, Shero didn't want to get too far ahead of himself.

"We'll just see," he said. "We do know that a healthy Kris Letang is certainly a huge part of our hockey team and makes us better. ... We'll just wait and see.

"Kris has been through something that's really a traumatic event, and just to be in this position to come back and play hockey again is certainly great news."

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