He also wasn’t a high draft pick, selected 174th overall in the seventh round.
But he made the most of his opportunities, setting the table for a nine-year career in the National Hockey League with a dynamite three seasons at the OHL level and a gold medal win with Team Canada at the 1997 World Juniors.
Playing and Coaching in Sarnia
Letowski’s professional hockey career began in 1994 in Sarnia, a 14-hour drive southeast of his hometown Thunder Bay, Ont. He spent three seasons in Sarnia, during which he posted 248 points (93g, 155a), which ranks fourth on the all-time Sting scoring list. In addition to serving as team captain in 1996-97, Letowski was named the Sting Rookie of the Year in the 1994-95 season and received MVP honors in 1996-97 for his 108-point campaign (35g, 73a).
“I had three good years here in Sarnia, and I built up quite a few good relationships in those three years,” he said. “When it got later into my NHL career, I always stayed in touch with the ownership group here, the Ciccarelli brothers. They said when I was finished, that there could be an opportunity here to try the coaching side.”
In 1997, Letowski captured a gold medal with Team Canada in the World Junior Championship, an accomplishment that is honored with his jersey in the rafters of the Sting’s RBC Centre.
“It was a big deal, especially in Canada. It’s something that’s kind of a tradition around the holidays,” he said. “The whole experience for my family and people back home in Thunder Bay that are close to us, they still remember the experience, and there are still stories around Christmas time. My house was kind of an open house for family and friends, and they’d come watch the games. It was pretty cool.”
Drafted in the seventh round by the Phoenix Coyotes in the summer of 1996, Letowski said his World Junior performance helped position himself as a viable NHL prospect, even more so than his torrid scoring pace in the OHL.
“It was a huge stepping stone to me becoming a legitimate NHL prospect,” he said. “For the most part, that team is made up of first-round picks, so to be a part of that group and win really put me on the radar, I think, as far as being a legitimate NHL prospect. I really believed it helped my career a lot.”
Letowski spent the following season in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons before splitting the 1998-99 season between Springfield and Phoenix. He also played with Vancouver and Columbus before landing in Raleigh.
Fast forward to 2010: Sarnia had a coaching vacancy, Letowski, now retired, wanted to try his hand at coaching and he had stayed in close contact with owners Robert and Larry Ciccarelli. It just made sense, and he came on as an assistant coach. He serves as the team’s associate coach today, after a brief interim head coaching role late last season.
“They said when I was finished, that there could be an opportunity here to try the coaching side,” Letowski recalled. “So, I talked to Rob Ciccarelli late in my career, and he said, ‘Yeah, when you’re done, we’d love to have you.’ It was great for me because it made the transition real easy. I was familiar with the city and some of the people in the organization.”
Carolina and Concussions
Just weeks after capturing their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Hurricanes signed the free-agent Letowski to a two-year deal. The Canes liked his character and two-way capabilities.
“It was an exciting time for that organization,” he said. “It was a real tight-knit group there, and they welcomed me in with open arms. I have a lot of respect for a lot of those players. It was a good time to be there. There are real good people – starting with Jim (Rutherford) – and I think it just funnels down through the organization. When you work for good people like that, it’s exciting.”
The Canes fifth game of the 2006-07 season was in Pittsburgh’s Melon Arena, where in March of the same calendar year, Brooks Orpik violently boarded Erik Cole, fracturing his vertebra. The Igloo again proved to be a house of horrors for the Canes on Oct. 14, 2006, as Colby Armstrong honed in like a heat-seeking missile on Letowski’s head. The devastating illegal check knocked Letowski unconscious, and he was taken off the ice on a stretcher.
Letowski, who had played more than 10 minutes in each of the first four games, missed the next nine games, as he was sidelined with the first documented concussion of his career. When he returned, his ice time steadily diminished; he averaged 9:41 of ice time that season.
“It set me back. Any time you get injured like that, it’s hard, especially with a new organization. You’re trying to find your role and place,” he said. “To miss all that time early like that, it was tough. Guys are playing pretty well, and I was trying to get back into the lineup. It was a real challenging season for me because I had to really work to get back into the lineup. I played most nights, but my minutes were limited. I just tried everything I could to stay in the lineup.”
Letowski admitted that symptoms of his concussion were hard to decipher. If he didn’t sleep well one night, was it his concussion or just in his head?
“In my experience, I tried to be as honest as I possibly could,” he said. “(The doctors) were definitely patient with my specific situation. It was a frustrating time. There were days that I felt great and I’d get on the ice, but the next day it was not so good. That sets you back, and then you have to start over again. It was frustrating, that’s for sure.”
With such a competitive environment, it’s not surprising to find athletes who hide their injuries. Concussions, however, are receiving increasingly heightened attention.
“There’s so much gray area with concussions. It’s not like you can go in, talk to the doctor, he sees exactly what’s wrong and says you’re going to be out 4-6 weeks. It’s basically a day-to-day kind of thing,” Letowski said. “The player has to be very honest, or else it’s real tough to monitor. The doctor really can’t see much. If the player isn’t being completely honest, it’s real easy for them to come back in a little early.”
In all, Letowski skated in 61 games during the 2006-07 season, scoring just eight points (2g, 6a). The next season, he played 75 games and recorded 18 points (9g, 9a). The Canes chose not to re-sign the forward in the summer of 2008.
Overseas and Retirement
Letowski signed with HC Barys for their inaugural KHL season in the summer of 2008.
It wasn’t Letowski’s first venture into international play. During the work stoppage in 2004-05, Letowski played for Fribourg-Gotteron of the Swiss-A league.
Both experiences exposed Letowski to a different style of hockey.
“I think because the size of the ice, the game is just played differently. Over here at the NHL level, the game is so fast, so direct and very physical because of that,” he said. “(In international play), it’s harder to just dump the puck in, get in on the forecheck and turnover pucks. It’s more of a puck possession game; you have to be patient. It’s harder to be physical because there is just so much space, and it’s hard to close in on guys to make big checks. It’s a more patient game, it’s highly skilled and there are great skaters there.”
It was also an adjustment off the ice, especially during his two-year KHL stint. HC Barys’ home rink is located in Astana, Kazakhstan. Not only is it a four-hour flight east of Moscow, but there are stark differences in the culture and playing life, as well.
“I was fortunate enough to play in the NHL for nine seasons. You’re used to that lifestyle, and you get treated so well. Everything is kind of taken care for you. You have people within the organization that that’s their job – to make the player feel comfortable, set everything up and make it easy,” he said. “In Russia, they do try. I was treated well. But they just don’t have the resources that the teams over here do. (Adjusting to) the lifestyle and culture in general was tough. The language barrier alone is very hard. You can’t just walk down to the local coffee shop, order something, grab a newspaper and relax. It’s just not there.”
Toward the conclusion of Letowski’s second season in Astana, his first child had been born (he flew home to Canada for it), the NHL was no longer an option and he was interested in exploring the coaching side of the game. So, at age 33, Letowski retired.
“As an NHL player, I wanted to be in that league as long as I possibly could,” he said. “If I could play in the NHL until I was 40, I definitely would have done that, but I really didn’t want to jump around, especially for my family. It was a pretty easy decision (to retire).”
In his nine-year NHL career, Letowski skated for four teams, playing in 616 games and scoring 201 points (84g, 117a). He played in 17 playoff games, never advancing past the second round.
Shortly after retirement, an opportunity to coach in Sarnia came open. It was a perfect fit for the former Sting forward, as he could go back home to Ontario while remaining involved with the game.
“Our family was ready to come back to North America, and we wanted somewhere familiar,” he said. “We just wanted to set some roots.”
Kirk Muller has said that one of his biggest assets as a coach is his ability to relate to every player – from the first line star to the fourth line grinder – because he, throughout his career, embodied all roles.
Letowski sees the same quality in himself. In junior hockey, he was eating up big minutes in a scoring role. Later in his career, he refined the defensive aspects of his game and killed penalties.
“I feel I can relate to the kids well no matter what role they have,” he said. I feel very fortunate for the career I had, the experiences I had with all the different coaches and the people I was able to meet. I try to pass some of that stuff on to these guys.
“Especially in the junior level, they are very motivated to try and be pros,” he said. “They’re very open, and they want to know what it’s like. I try to pass on some stories. Because they know I played, they trust that I can give them what it takes to get there.”
Having played in Europe and Russia, in addition to North America, Letowski’s coaching philosophy is an amalgam of styles.
“Those three years of hockey really helped me as well because it opened my eyes to how many good players there are and the different styles of the game,” he said. “The way they teach the game, the way they train and the way they practice is a little bit different than we do it in North America. I agree with some things and disagree with others, but I definitely take a piece of that with me for coaching.”
The main lesson he hopes players will take with them? To cherish the relationships formed while playing hockey, whether it’s in the NHL or elsewhere.
“The NHL is always a dream come true for players, but once you get there, it’s funny how you realize that hockey’s hockey. At the NHL level, there are good people scattered throughout,” he said. “It almost seems like the NHL is on a pedestal and it’s so great. But when you’ve experienced it, it’s just good people working together, and you try to pass on those experiences.”