In 2008, Kris Letang was playing in his first Stanley Cup Final for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Detroit Red Wings had stormed out to a 2-0 series lead, and coach Michel Therrien decided to make a change: Replacing his young defenseman with veteran Darryl Sydor. Letang wouldn’t play again in the series, which the Penguins eventually lost in six games.
Out of the lineup in the most important series of the season, Letang received a text message of encouragement from his best friend the night before Game 3: Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luc Bourdon, with whom Letang texted nearly every day. Bourdon wished Letang good luck, hoping the Penguins would come back in the series.
He also told Letang about the motorcycle he had recently purchased.
It would be the last time the two would communicate with one another.
On May 29, 2008, around noon, Bourdon was riding his Suzuki GSX-R1000 when he lost control and collided with a tractor-trailer near his hometown of Shippagan, New Brunswick. He was killed instantly.
Bourdon was just 21 years old. Only two weeks before the accident did Bourdon receive his motorcycle license.
That same day, Letang was on his way to Mellon Arena for an off-day practice after the Penguins’ 3-2 win in Game 3. His agent called him and told him Bourdon had died.
On the eve of Game 4, Letang discussed his best friend’s life with the assembled media, and his body language said everything. He was constantly rubbing his folded arms. Eyes reddened from crying. His voice affected by the pain that he was experiencing.
His body was in Pittsburgh that day, but his heart and mind were in New Brunswick. He would soon fly back to attend Bourdon’s funeral, which would take place three days later.
Bourdon’s girlfriend, Charlene Ward, was driving behind him just before the accident as he was on his way to a repair shop. The two met in seventh grade and began dating after they graduated high school. At the funeral, she wept through a poem she had written for Bourdon that finished with:
“You’re my sweetheart … You’re my sunshine … You’re my best friend … You’re my special someone … You’re the one who always puts a smile on my face … But the most important thing, you’re my one and everything.”
Letang would return to Pittsburgh in time for Game 6, but mentally he wasn’t ready to play hockey again.
“I had a skate in the morning and I could barely skate,” Letang recalled last month, as the fifth-anniversary of Bourdon's death neared. “My head wasn’t there. My emotions were [gone] out of my body.”
Not long after the Penguins defeated the Red Wings during the 2009 Cup Final, Letang got a tattoo that was dedicated to his grandmother and also his best friend. Bourdon’s portion was a guitar, one his passions. (Canucks management wore guitar pins in honor of Bourdon during the 2008 NHL Draft.)
“He was always my protector on the ice,” Letang said. “He was big and nobody could touch me if he was on the ice. He’s like a guardian angel.”
Kris Letang and Luc Bourdon first met when they were 15 years old. Represented by the same agency, the two would see one another during summers at the MFive Sports training camp. It was a chance to play against older competition and prepare for their burgeoning hockey careers.
The first step came in 2003 when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Val-d’Or Foreurs drafted Bourdon and Letang. Bourdon went third overall, two spots after Rimouski selected Sidney Crosby. Letang was picked two rounds later, 27th overall.
Bourdon would play 64 games the following season with Val-d’Or, while Letang spent another year at College Antoine-Girouard, a high school in Quebec. During the 2004-05 season, Bourdon and Letang played together with the Foreurs, posting identical stats – 13 goals, 19 assists in 70 games.
Over the next three seasons, Hockey Canada would come calling for both of their services on three occasions with Canada winning silver at the 2005 U18 tournament and then back-to-back gold medals at the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships.
Known for his love of playing guitar and for being a jokester, during one World Junior tournament Bourdon took it upon himself to play a prank on teammate Steve Downie. One day when Downie was attempting to play guitar, the sound emanating from it did not sit well with Bourdon.
He knew what good guitar playing sounded like. So later that day, Bourdon found Downie’s guitar and ripped the strings out of it, ensuring no more offensive sounds would come out of it.
“When you crack him and get close to him he’s really friendly,” said Letang. “He’s a jokester and likes to have fun. But when you don’t… I think Downie wasn’t his favorite guy.”
Many scouts had their eyes on Bourdon heading into the 2005 NHL Draft, which in the end benefited Letang.
“I knew he was going to be picked really high. The reason I got drafted that high (62nd overall) is all the scouts were coming to see him in Val D’or and I had some exposure there,” Letang joked.
Even as they took the next step in their hockey careers -- with Bourdon drafted to the Canucks (10th overall) and Letang selected by the Penguins -- the two stayed in contact, checking up on the each other often.
“We texted every day,” Letang said. “That’s what was fun. He could watch my game and I could watch his game because of the different time zones. We always kept in touch. We knew we were going to train in the summer and skate together.”
Both made their NHL debuts during the 2006-07 season, but only spent a short time up in The Show before going back to junior. The following season, Letang earned a full-spot spot with the Penguins and would eventually play in his first of two straight Cup Finals later that spring.
A year after falling to the Red Wings in the 2008 Final, the Penguins would triumph in seven games in a rematch for their third title in franchise history. On the night he experienced the greatest achievement of his hockey career, and as he waited to hoist the Cup, Letang’s late friend was on his mind.
“Every time I step on the ice he’s in my thoughts,” Letang said. “He was a guy that embraced every day of hockey. Just for my every day I step on the ice I have a thought about how he would work and present himself and try to get better. Every night I think about him before games, making sure I’m ready and all the things he taught me.”
May 29, 2013 marks five years since Bourdon’s passing. Letang doesn’t do anything special to remember his friend each anniversary. He spends it just thinking about the good memories the two shared and exchanges texts with Bourdon’s mother.
They shared triumphs, heartbreak and life’s ups and downs together.
Five years later, there isn’t one specific thing about his best friend stands out for Letang.
“Just himself. Just him as a person,” Letang said. “He was good to be around. You know you were not getting bored when you were with him. There was always something to do. He always brought life to us. I have great memories in hockey winning championships with him and getting drafted and playing in the NHL at 19.
“These are all little moments, but him, that’s the biggest thing I miss.”
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy