Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang trains with MMA’s best so he can beat the NHL’s best.
Prior to Rory MacDonald’s December 2012 matchup with B.J. Penn, the UFC trekked to Montreal to film MacDonald’s preparation in a “Road to the Octagon” episode. The camera crew documented MacDonald’s time at the Adrenaline Performance Center, where the welterweight trained with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.
The 26-year-old Letang wasn’t always a fan of mixed martial arts. His focus, like many young Canadians, was hockey. “I was just a typical hockey guy, playing hockey 12 months a year,” says Letang. “I had no time for anything else.” That focus clearly paid off for Letang, who signed an NHL contract in 2006.
Letang may not have had time to practice martial arts as a youth, but that didn’t prevent him from finding an admiration for MMA later in life. Letang’s appreciation for the sport originated from a more cerebral angle. “What got me interested in the sport was that they have to be careful about every opponent,” he says. “There are so many variables that could arise during a fight. I think it’s pretty impressive that they have to train for a lot of things just to prepare for one guy.”
Some of that preparation is time spent on strength and conditioning, and that’s how Letang came to work with UFC fighters Georges St-Pierre, Rory MacDonald, Mike Ricci, and Ivan Menjivar. While those fighters spend a great deal of their time with Firas Zahabi at the Tristar Gym working on their MMA techniques, they also spend time strength and conditioning training with Jonathan Chaimberg at Adrenaline Performance Center.
“I had the chance to wrestle with some of the guys, but that’s about it,” Letang says. “It’s mostly strength and conditioning training for me. When these guys fight—to go five-minute rounds—they need to be well conditioned, so that’s what I focus on with them.”
That training has enhanced Letang’s appreciation for MMA, but it’s also made him a force on the ice. This year, Letang was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, an award presented annually to the best defenseman in the NHL, and he earned an eight-year, $58-million contract extension with the Penguins in July. The training has also allowed Letang to average more that 27 minutes on the ice per game, which is the fourth most in the league.
“When I train with Mike or Rory, it’s the explosion and quickness of the way they do drills that impresses me the most. They’re super-light on their feet because they need to move pretty quickly to avoid their opponents. I think for my part, as a defenseman, it helps me to be powerful and stay strong on the ice for an extended amount of time.”
Letang is currently training for the 2014 NHL season, as well as a coveted spot on the 2013 Canadian Olympic Hockey Team, but he still finds time to attend UFC events and cheer on his countrymen.
“Growing up in Montreal, I’d been watching Georges, but once I had the chance to train next to him and appreciate what he has to go through to get better, it’s amazing. When Georges fights in Montreal, it’s always special. Our favorite sport is hockey, but when you have a guy like Georges—who’s kind of an ambassador for the sport—it brings everybody out, and that’s what happens in Montreal. It gets crazy. Everybody wants him to do well. It’s really special, it gives you chills when you see those guys step in and try to beat the shit out of each other.”