By Jason Gregor – Edmonton Journal
Mark Letestu played his 366th National Hockey League game in Tampa Bay, Fla., on Tuesday and barring injury he’ll reach 368 career games before the NHL All-star break. It is meaningful number and one he never expected to reach.
Letestu didn’t play Midget AAA hockey. He didn’t play major junior and he wasn’t drafted. If it wasn’t for Jeff Pister, he most likely never would have played in the NHL, and most certainly wouldn’t see his No. 11 retired by the Bonnyville Pontiacs on Jan. 30.
Pister was the head coach of the Pontiacs in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2002-03 when he saw Letestu play for the St. Paul Canadiens in Junior B and signed him. Pister liked the Elk Point native’s skill and convinced him to come play in Bonnyville.
“I didn’t believe this (playing in the NHL) was the way it was going to go,” Letestu said of his upcoming junior jersey number retirement.
“At the time playing there you are just trying to get to the next level. It did take a while for me to earn that scholarship; the skating has always been an issue,” Letestu said. “You find a way to adjust, somebody believes in you, gives you a chance and you try to make the most of it.”
The plan to retire Letestu’s Pontiacs number has been in the works for a couple of years, Letestu said, but the logistics were difficult when he lived in Columbus, Ohio, year-round playing for the Blue Jackets. “It doesn’t matter what level, to be honoured by a team is pretty special. It is something I’m really looking forward to. I’m pretty nervous for it, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Letestu was reflective discussing his time in Bonnyville. He said he had a great coach in Pister and was surrounded by talented people. “We did some special things, most wins in franchise history and the organization’s first playoff series win.” he said.
Beyond Letestu, the Pontiacs had a strong team. Justin Fontaine scored 157 points in 114 games and is currently in his third season with the Minnesota Wild. Jon Kalinski was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers and played 22 NHL games. Olympic gold medallist Shannon Szabados was their goalie and world long driving champion Jamie Sadlowski played defence. “He had a cannon of shot,” Letestu said.
Letestu earned a scholarship to Western Michigan University when he was 19 years old, but he deferred his scholarship for one year so he could play with his younger brother Lee. He believed he’d play National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey, get a degree and then join the workforce. His NHL opportunity was unexpected.
Letestu scored 118 goals and 268 points in 190 games with the Pontiacs and was a dynamic scorer. He is excited to return to Bonnyville and share the experience with his former teammates, his parents, his in-laws and mainly his wife, Brett, who he has known since the fourth grade.
“Playing as long as I did in the AJHL, it taught me to be a leader. When you spend four years on the same team, with the captaincy for a couple years, you learn how to be a leader, how to lead by example and how to drive a team offensively,” he said. “To be the guy to be looked upon and shoulder a lot of pressure it helped me a lot when I went to school. In Western Michigan I was put in a similar situation and looked to carry the load offensively.
“I was given a lot of creative freedom.”
Letestu’s jersey retirement starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30 at the R.J Lalonde arena in Bonnyville.