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Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang celebrates his first period goal against the Montreal Canadiens during an Eastern Conference semi-final NHL playoff hockey game in Pittsburgh on May 8, 2010. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang celebrates his first period goal against the Montreal Canadiens during an Eastern Conference semi-final NHL playoff hockey game in Pittsburgh on May 8, 2010. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Penguins announce star defenceman Kris Letang, 26, suffered stroke Add to ...

The news that he suffered a stroke at the age of 26 and has a congenital heart defect was devastating for Kris Letang and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but medical history shows he should be able to resume his career.

A battery of tests revealed the nausea and dizziness the Penguins defenceman experienced last week was actually a minor stroke. The tests also showed Letang, 26, has had a small hole in his heart since birth. The hole, which normally grows closed in most people, may have contributed to the stroke.

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The Penguins announced the news on their website Friday and said Letang is expected to recover and could be ready to play in six weeks. He was put on blood thinners and will be re-evaluated again by the team doctors in six weeks.

“It obviously was a shock to get the news but I’m optimistic that I can overcome this and get back on the ice,” Letang said in a statement released on the Penguins website. He will not be available to the media until after the Olympic break.

While it is rare for young people and athletes to suffer a stroke, which is generally caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, usually because of a blood clot, there have been some famous cases. In 1980, Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, then one of the biggest stars in Major League Baseball, suffered a massive stroke due to a blood clot in his neck at the age of 30. It ended his career. Brian Mullen, who played 11 seasons in the NHL, suffered a stroke at the age of 31 in August, 1993 due to a blood clot in his brain. He attempted to return for the 1994-95 season with the New York Islanders but suffered a seizure and was forced to retire.

However, two athletes with a similar medical history as Letang’s managed to resume their professional careers after suffering strokes. Tedy Bruschi, a linebacker with the NFL’s New England Patriots, and Strang Smith, a professional rodeo cowboy, both suffered strokes as the result of a congenital heart defect called patent foramen ovale (PFO). The defect is a small hole in the heart due to the fact the upper two chambers of the heart do not grow closed.

Bruschi was 31 when he suffered his stroke in February, 2005, shortly after he played in the Pro Bowl. Smith was 32 when he was stricken in 2003. In both cases, the stroke was caused when a blood clot passed through the holes in their hearts and lodged in their brains. Both men underwent surgery to repair the hole.

Bruschi came back to play in October of 2005, playing three more seasons before retiring. Smith went on to win the 2008 world calf-roping championship and still competes today.

The Penguins have not said if the hole in Letang’s heart is PFO nor is it known if surgery is contemplated to fix the problem. He was cleared by the doctors to go on vacation with his family during the Olympic break. When the Penguins return from the break, around Feb. 20, Letang is expected to skate on his own.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said he does not know if Letang will have surgery.

“Kris has had it since he was born," Bylsma said. "It’s something he’s played with, exercised with, worked out with and is going to continue to live with. I don’t know anything much more than that for you.”

Letang felt nauseous and dizzy last Wednesday morning shortly before the Penguins were to fly to Los Angeles for a western road trip. His mother-in-law, who is a nurse, was present and Letang apparently said he was fine. The trip was to include the players and their mothers and Letang and his mother Christiane made the flight, although Letang did not practice with the team in the afternoon after they arrived in Los Angeles.

When the symptoms persisted after Letang took part in the game-day skate on Thursday, the team doctors held him out of that night’s game against the Kings. On Saturday, when the team was in Phoenix to play the Coyotes, the doctors made an early diagnosis of a stroke. Letang was sent home to Pittsburgh for more tests.

From Monday to Wednesday, Letang underwent a series of tests and on Thursday he was told it was a stroke. Only a few people connected to the team were told and on Friday morning Letang’s teammates were informed of the diagnosis.

“The most important thing right now, of course, is Kris’s health,” Shero said. “We’re not thinking about hockey right now. We want to make sure he gets the best possible care and gets better. After six weeks of treatment, doctors will re-evaluate Kris.”

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