ELK POINT - Like many young minor hockey players growing up, Elk Point's Mark Letestu dreamed of one day making it to the NHL.
"I had the pyjamas and the bed spread," he says, with a laugh, adding, he likely won the Stanley Cup thousands of times in his mind while playing hockey in his basement.
On Dec. 28, Letestu announced his retirement from the NHL. The 35-year-old centreman began his NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He then went on to play with the Columbus Blue Jackets, followed by three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, and a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets.
In October of 2019, Letestu was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, which forced him to step off the ice as he recovered. Letestu played seven games with the Jets, before the diagnosis was made official.
Letestu says he likely had a virus at some point, which caused the condition, and the only way to recover was to take time off and essentially do nothing. While Letestu is now healthy and in the clear, having the time off made him realize how much he enjoyed the extra time with his family.
Being forced to take time off from hockey acted as a "practice run" for retirement. And as a dad, he got to be part of the every-day routine with his family, which he admits was quite "comfortable."
Letestu and his wife, Brett, have three kids. His sons are now nine and seven years old, and his daughter is five. All three kids are now playing minor hockey, with this season being his daughter's first on the ice.
The proud dad says he tries to get out with his kids whenever he can, and Brett also helps coach.
“We have a lot going on with minor hockey."
No easy road
The Elk Point native didn't take the easy road to the NHL.
When asked to describe his NHL career, Letestu says simply, "it was a tough one." But, he acknowledges that he got a lot out of the experience on a personal level.
As a teenager, Letestu played for the St. Paul Jr. B Canadiens and was awarded League Top Scorer of the NEAJBHL in the 2002/03 season. He also received the award for League Rookie of the Year, and Team MVP.
Letestu went on to play junior hockey with the Bonnyville Pontiacs. During the 2005/06 season, Letestu led the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) in scoring racking up 105 points in 58 games, and was named the AJHL's most valuable player.
Letestu then went south of the border, playing his 2006/07 season at Western Michigan University. Letestu was then signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Penguins in March of 2007.
“I had to take the long way," says Letestu, when speaking about his journey to the NHL. "But, I found a way to adjust.”
He says he never would have thought the road would lead to 12 years in the league, and for that he's pretty proud.
And while there was no doubt a lot of hard work, getting to the NHL did require luck.
“I needed a lot of luck,” says Letestu. But, at nearly every level he played, he also had a coach who took the time to teach him and work with him, and that too helped him succeed.
"Anyone who is successful has some sort of break," he adds.
When asked about his career highlights, Letestu says there are too many to name, but he enjoyed being able to come back home to skate with some of the younger hockey players over the years. He was also part of starting up an equipment lending program in Elk Point, which has made an impact on some kids being able to play the sport with the proper gear.
For now, the Letestu family will make Columbus their home base. When Letestu played with the Blue Jackets, they were able to put some roots down in the city, and there are also lots of opportunities for Letestu's children.
“If I remain (involved) in hockey, which I plan to, I’m sure this won’t be a final destination," admits Letestu.
Normally, the family does travel back and forth between Canada and the US, although that has slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Letestu's oldest son is Canadian, while his two younger children are American. So, the family gets to straddle both lines, "which is kind of fun," especially when watching the recent IIHF World Junior Championship.
Due to travel restrictions, Letestu and his wife have had to rely on technology to see their parents back home.
"You can bridge that gap a little bit. It’s not the same," says Letestu. But, there are apps that allow the grandparents to watch hockey practices, and keep connected, despite the distance.
Like many others, the Letestu family is simple "grinding through it" and looking forward to when they can travel again.
"We’re in no hurry. We just want to make sure every body’s safe.”
Since announcing his retirement shortly after Christmas, Letestu says he's been busy answering text messages and phone calls from past teammates, friends and the media.
"It’s been fun to have the conversations," says Letestu. He's been able to uncover memories and moments and says it's been fun to look back on his time in the NHL.
Shortly after announcing his retirement, the Edmonton Oilers posted on the team's social media, congratulating Letestu and describing him as an "all-around good guy." The centreman played 220 games with the Oilers between 2015 and 2018, scoring 79 points.
A look back at minor hockey
While it may be hard to pinpoint any specific highlight from his NHL career, Letestu is able to recall a highlight from his minor hockey career.
It was likely his first year playing in Elk Point, and the Atom team made it to provincials in Fairview, Alta. But, the team lost.
“That one always stuck with me," says Letestu. He recalls crying his eyes out on the trip home and still remembers how much the experience meant to him as a kid. That competitive nature carried over as Letestu got older, and he now sees some of those same qualities reflected in his own kids.
Overall, Letestu believes the minor hockey experience is "so special." There's a lot of volunteer work that goes into the experience, and when he was a kid, it was "just a bunch of dads that had time" to help their kids out on the ice.
For the most part, Letestu is happy to have the opportunity now to thank everyone for their support along the way.
“I’ve always been proud to be from Elk Point. And hopefully I represented it well on the big stage.”