“Am I going to die?” Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta asked this question to team Physican Dr. Dharmesh Vyas. He was just 20 years old at the time. They had found a lump in his neck when he was undergoing the annual team physicals. That lump turned out to be thyroid cancer. Fortunately, Maatta’s cancer was caught early and surgery was done quickly to remove it.
One morning in early 2013, Kristopher Letang’s wife found him laying on the floor. Neither of them really knew what was going on. Eventually they would though. They would find out that a hole present in Kris’s heart had likely caused one of the National Hockey League’s most conditioned athletes to have a stroke in his early twenties. But Letang’s well-conditioned body helped him. That plus the quick thinking of his wife and careful attention by the Penguins medical team ensured his full recovery. He was treated for his stroke and now knows how to live his life with a hole in his heart.
Phil Kessel, who came to the Penguins via trade during the 2015 off-season, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006. At the time, he was a rookie forward for the Boston Bruins. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few weeks and after a visit with the team doctor and a discussion about a lump he had found in his testicle they were pretty sure. Sonograms, tests, and a surgery later they were sure. It had been cancer, but it hadn’t spread. Kessel recovered from the surgery and lives his life normally.
Then, there’s Sidney Crosby, the man who had two fractured vertebrae for nearly a year before anyone realized it. Crosby, who was concussed at the 2011 Winter Classic, was treated for a concussion that just would not go away for over a year. After consulting with doctors in both California and Utah, they discovered the now-triple gold captain had fractures in both his C1 and C2 vertebrae. Yes, that’s right a few more inches one way or a little bit harder of a hit and Sidney Crosby could have been paralyzed or at least, never played professional hockey again.
These men put on their skates every day and glide up and down ice for a living with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are paid to play hockey and they’re paid pretty well to do it. But the fact they can do it at all is remarkable. They’ve overcome so much just to come to the rink every day and put on that skating penguin jersey, but they don’t just put it on. They excel when wearing it.
Since the Penguins mid-season coaching change, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby look like new players. Crosby has notched 18 goals, 16 assists, good for 34 points in 26 games played. He has scored hat tricks, matched a season-long NHL goal scoring streak (7 games, also reached by Chicago’s Patrick Kane) and looks better than he has since before his concussion. Letang is enjoying his second best statistical year despite a terrible start and has 8 goals, 18 assists and 26 points in his 20 games played since Sullivan became the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Meanwhile, Maatta has emerged as one of the Penguins two steadiest defenders (the other is first-year full-time pro Brian Dumoulin). The 21 year-old’s plus minus is an unreal +20 on the season. That’s tied for second among all NHL defensemen with Washington’s Karl Alzner.
And Kessel? While his goal total isn’t necessarily as incredible as we had hoped, with just 11 this season, he hasn’t been bad. He’s driven possession, with a 52.3% Corsi For percentage of total. This means he’s driving offense 52.3% of the time in the offensive zone. He also seems to look much more comfortable alongside Carl Hagelin and Evgeni Malkin than he ever did in Toronto. In fact, his trio with Malkin and Hagelin looked like it was just getting going when the former was shelved with injury.
These are just four of the many players who have overcome something incredible to play for the Penguins. Trevor Daley got a fresh start after a terrible time in Chicago. Patric Hornqvist, chosen last overall in the 2005 entry draft, is playing on the top line with the man taken first that same year. Matt Cullen is considered way too old to be a hockey player by most standards. Even their coach, fired fairly quickly from his first NHL job a decade ago, worked through some real adversity to get back to where he is.
This team won’t quit. Outnumbered? No problem. Outmanned. No big deal. Missing four of their top twelve forwards? Just another day at the office. So if they win the Stanley Cup, they’ll all be pretty excited. But the fact these guys get to play in the NHL at all, that’s as big as a Stanley Cup on it’s own.