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IN DEPTH: Homecoming

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Mark Letestu was looking for a new home, but more importantly he was awaiting the arrival of his new baby girl.

Already a father of two, Letestu and his wife, Brett, were expecting and it came at a tumultuous time. Letestu was set to become a free agent.

“It was a stressful time, but it was exciting,” said Letestu.

July 1, Letestu signed a three-year contract with the Oilers to bring the uncertainty on the job side of things to an abrupt halt. 21 days later, the Letestu Clan grew by one.

“It’s great that she arrived healthy and she’s brought us a lot of happiness,” said the now father of three.

When players enter free agency, they have a checklist. Maybe they want to play in a specific conference for a specific team or for a specific coach. Maybe geography comes into play and there is always length of the term and, of course, the finance details.

“My checklist is I wanted a job,” Letestu said with a laugh.

“I say that jokingly, but I also mean that seriously. When you’re a role guy, like myself, it always seems like there are a few guys out there that can do that. You’re hoping there’s a fit with some team. For me, I was never real confident there was going to be a ton of interest. You never really know what people are looking for. I’ve never been so confident that the options are going to be there.”

Luckily for Letestu, there was some interest from a few teams and the Oilers were among the first to call.

“We talked and as exciting as it was, it was still stressful. I’ve got three kids and a wife and they’re in tow with whatever I choose or we make that decision as a family that we’re going somewhere.

“Throughout the whole process, Edmonton was one of the first teams to contact me. The fit felt right. I had a relationship with (Oilers Sr. Vice President of Player Personnel) Scott Howson in Columbus. I trust him a great deal. We had a great conversation.”

And so the deal was struck. Letestu, his wife and three children were packing up their bags and heading to their “new” Alberta home. Funny enough, Alberta was home all along.

ALBERTA BOY

“I bounced around a lot.” For Letestu, that’s understating it. As a young boy, he and his family moved around a lot. Born in Saskatoon, SK, his father’s job in the oil fields meant living there didn’t last long.

Letestu lived in Dundurn, SK for a time and then moved to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and then back to Saskatchewan where he lived in the town of Kindersley.

“Then in the sixth grade, I moved to Elk Point,” said Letestu.

“For me, that’s my home. That’s where I was raised to be a young adult and then on. That’s where I spent most of my life. For me, it’s home. It’s what I call my hometown. This is where I’m from.”

Elk Point, AB is the place Letestu looks back on fondly as his real roots.

“It’s a small town,” said Letestu. “I think it was 1,400 people when I lived there. I liked the fact that I knew everybody. A lot of people wore different hats for me. The president of minor hockey was also my baseball coach. My principal at my high school, who I still keep in contact with, was a former college hockey player. He leant me advice. My math teacher, who is now the principal, was really into rock music and I became friends with him. People, for whatever reason, when it’s a small town you get to know them. You develop personal relationships much easier and I appreciate that from my hometown. I still get friendly text messages from several people from there because of that.”

About a two and a half hour drive from Edmonton, Elk Point is deep in the heart of Oil Country. As an outsider coming into Alberta, Letestu didn’t have the same sports loyalties as the rest of the children at school. His dad was a Montreal Canadiens fan and so he developed the same fondness.

Letestu became a fan of Saku Koivu and looked up to his passion for the game and his battle as a bit of an undersized forward, something Letestu says he sees in himself.

“I tried as much as I could to model my game from him,” said Letestu. “I see him as an undersized centreman. He was willing to go into the dirty areas and battle guys bigger than him. You could tell when he went to areas to do things, he meant it. I think that’s how you could see the passion. When he went to execute a play or go into a battle he went to win it. You could see how much his teammates cared for him that way and the leadership he brought because of the way he played.”

With his allegiances as part of the minority in Elk Point, Letestu liked to stir the pot a bit. Now that he’s signed with the Oilers and has returned to Alberta, he doesn’t hear the end of it.

“It was kind of funny that guys would text because I liked to play devil’s advocate when I was in school with Oilers fans. I’d go against what they were saying so it’s funny to be on this side now, very pro-Oilers. It’s different when they’re signing your cheques,” Letestu laughed.

He may not have been an Oilers fan back then, but Letestu has grown into that now as a member of the organization. He wasn’t born in the province and didn’t root for Edmonton or Calgary, but make no mistake— Letestu is an Alberta boy at heart. Speaking of hearts, Elk Point is very important to his.

“I was in the sixth grade and met (Brett) then,” said Letestu. “We weren’t dating the whole time or anything like that but I’ve known her forever. she’s been through the grind, she’s been with me through junior and college, minor pro and now pro. She’s seen the grind. She played hockey until she was 18 so she understands the game and the life that comes with it. It’s been a lot of fun for all of us and we’re certainly not ready for it to be over.”

Letestu’s wife has been by his side through the twists and turns of a hockey career that took flight in and has returned to Alberta.

FROM NO EXPECTATIONS, TO REALITY

Letestu didn't have legitimate hopes of becoming an NHL player until after he left Alberta. When he was playing for the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the AJHL, Letestu just didn’t feel it was quite in his sights.

“I think at no point in Junior A was I thinking about the NHL, just because I had played in the Junior B league and nobody comes out of there and plays in the NHL,” he said. “When I got to Junior A and really started to get there and have success, that’s when I thought now I can play college, now I can get to the next level and possibly get there, get an education and make something of hockey with no real expectation of the NHL. I was thinking maybe it passed me by because of my age.”

Letestu improved his offensive numbers each of his four seasons in the AJHL. His final year with the Pontiacs (2005-06), Letestu scored 50 goals and added 55 assists for 105 points in 58 games.

The Pontiacs will retire Letestu’s number this season.

“It’s kind of been in the works the last couple of years,” Letestu said in an exclusive interview with Oilers TV. “The organization is really motivated to do it to celebrate the guys who have made it or guys who have done well with their careers and went through Bonnyville and I was lucky enough to play with a couple of guys who have played NHL games. That hasn’t been all that common in Bonnyville. There’s a couple of us still playing like Justin Fontaine in Minnesota. He was a linemate of mine. I think for the organization there to kind of celebrate their alumni is something the hockey organization can be proud of.”

Letestu, however, is humble and shies away from the accomplishment.

“Something for myself, it is really one of the first things in hockey you’re uncomfortable talking about,” he admitted. “The way hockey players are, they’re humble and you don’t always like the spotlight on you. It’s a really cool thing to have your number retired, but at the same time you’re not pounding your chest or patting yourself on the back about it either. I’m really excited for it and to see what Bonnyville has planned.”

Letestu, still not convinced of his odds of making it to the NHL, sought out an education at Western Michigan University. The forward, once in those surroundings, began to realize the odds weren’t that against him.

Photo Courtesy of WMU Athletics

“It wasn’t until I went to college and really had success there and was around NHL draft picks and guys who had talked to NHL teams, that I thought I really had a chance to sign on with a team and give it a run. Fortunately, it came true.”

He played just one season, scoring 24 goals in 37 games, before the pros came calling. The 5-foot-10, right-shot centre was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 22, 2007.

After a couple seasons of working hard in the minors, Letestu got his opportunity to play in the big leagues. The centre laced his skates for the first time in NHL regular season action on November 14, 2009. He’d score his first NHL on February 1, 2010.

“It was the opening shift of the game. I got to start the game, which was kind of cool,” said Letestu. “First shift of the game, we’re in the d-zone and there’s just a turnover along the wall. A d-man got pinching and it turned into a 3-on-1 rush. I just tried to drive the backdoor. The guy who had it, Tyler Kennedy, is a bit of a shooter. He’s not really known for passing so I figured there was going to be a shot and I could get to a rebound or something. He made a great little sauce pass backdoor and I was able to tap it in.”

It was a lot to soak in.

“Then I kind of got emotional scoring the goal,” Letestu said. “It was a really cool moment. The only thing I really remember was trying to catch my breath on the bench from all the celebrating and the emotion that goes into it, it takes a little bit out of you. Just tried to catch myself and really regroup on the bench. I still had 58 minutes left to play in that game. It was a really cool moment and my favourite NHL moment. It’s something that will always stick with me. I’ll remember it forever.”

The look at the net was just too good and Letestu wasn’t going to blow it.

“That first goal, I wasn’t going to miss that. I’d have gone through the net with it if I’d had to. It was an easy one. That puck was going in no matter what,” he said.

Letestu toiled in the minors and grinded out some NHL action, but it was a conversation with the general manager of the Penguins that really took his career to another level.

YOU'RE CLOSE, KID

At the end of every season, particularly in the minors, players go through exit meetings with coaches and management. How did you think your season went? Here’s what you did well. Here’s what we need you to work on.

One of those conversations led to Letestu taking the next step. Ray Shero, Pittsburgh’s GM at the time, sat down with his forward at the end of one of his seasons.

Photo by Getty Images

“I came off a pretty good year where I had kind of put myself back on the map as far as being a prospect,” said Letestu. “Something they had told me was to focus on winning faceoffs and winning the small battles. That was going to be something that was going to allow me to separate myself from my peers and give myself a chance to play. It wasn’t necessarily something I went into the summer and wasn’t really going to work on every practice or day, or take 100 faceoffs. But (after the conversation) it was more of a mindset that I was close and if I really were to bear down on these small areas I was going to give myself a chance. It was a little bit of a push that I needed. It was a little bit of motivation and it helped me a lot.”

Some players come out of exit meetings with a clear course in mind and some are extra motivated. For Letestu, that talk with Shero helped change the course of his summer and career. He knew he was knocking on the door of full-time NHL duty.

“In that situation, it did (help me), he said. “When the general manager of the hockey team tells you very small things are going to put you in the league it means you’re close. For me, that meant if I really put the work in in the summer, got prepared and gave myself an opportunity then there’s a real chance I was going to get to play. That was the first training camp I went into thinking, ‘I can make this team.’

“Whether it was from that exit interview or not, it definitely gives you the motivation or at least the mindset to get you going in the right direction.”

Whatever direction Letestu took off in it led him to a career that, so far, has seen over 300 NHL regular season games, and 17 in the playoffs. He finished off his career in Pittsburgh when the club traded him to Columbus. Letestu spent four seasons there becoming a free agent this past summer.

That’s when Letestu made the decision to return home to Alberta and join the blue and orange.

COMING HOME

Letestu says his checklist wasn’t long. He was looking for a job and the particulars would come later.

The Oilers were among the first teams to call and show interest. The team was looking for a right-shot, fourth-line centre who could do the dirty work in the dot and kill penalties. Letestu was the perfect fit.

“What we wanted was a right-shot centre who was good on faceoffs. That was the general premise behind it,” Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli said after the signing. “It’s another tool that your coach has. You put a left-shot, right-shot centre on important draws. There was some familiarity with Mark and that was really the driving force behind it.”

Chiarelli saw the fit in player and the player saw the fit with the team.

“I threw my name on the roster and I knew exactly where I was going to be and what role I was going to have,” said Letestu. “I didn’t think there was going to be a big feeling-out process or anything like that. It was just that everything came together for me. I couldn’t be happier to be here.”

It also helps having family not even three hours away.

“You’re always weighing that. It plays a part, but at the same time you’re nervous about going home,” said Letestu. “We’ve had our own personal life away from family for 10 years. Now you’re coming into where routines might have to change and family is going to want to be around more. There’s adjustments. It wasn’t always, ‘we’re going to come home because mom and dad are here.’ The hockey team was the right fit. The hockey is the reason we came back. I do believe in this team. I believe in the guys in the room, the coaching staff and the management. That’s the reason we came back. We’d still buy plane tickets for mom and dad to come see the kids if we had to but the hockey was the main reason we came home.”

With his third child on the way, Letestu had work to do after signing. He left his family behind to visit the Edmonton area and start house hunting.

“I had to sneak up a couple days after I signed to get a house without my wife and that kind of stuff,” he said. “I passed that test, she likes the house. It was a stressful time, but it was exciting.”

As Letestu drove to the rink for the Oilers home opener, there wasn’t much reflection about being back in Alberta.

Photo by Getty Images

“Everybody wants to know what’s going on in their head throughout the day,” he told Oilers TV, who rode along with Letestu for his first home game. “For me, it’s kind of a one-time thing. This is the one game that defines me coming back and the rest can just be hockey games. The rest can just be normal. So far, today has been pretty normal. It’s not like people have been beating down the door with ticket requests or anything like that. Everybody has been respectful in that way, as far as friends and family. The excitement for the hockey season to get going, it’s going to be really cool to play at home.”

That first game was also his first real chance to soak in the atmosphere at Rexall Place as a member of the home team. Skating out through the iconic oil derrick was special. He was excited for it even on the drive in.

“The lowering of the derrick, with me being a fan and seeing that and the playing of the hype video on the screen, for me, it’s going to be exciting,” he said before the game. “I used to be a fan and probably still would be considered a fan of the game, just in a different sense. To go through the derrick on the other side of things, when you’re a kid and you go to the games, everybody thinks how cool it would be to be able to do that.”

When he first signed with the Oilers, Letestu had no idea what coming home would be like. From ticket requests to changes in routines, it is all new to him and his family. But there is also something unique and memorable about having family there to cheer you on.

Letestu had his mother, his father, his wife and brother-in-law in attendance at the Oilers home opener against St. Louis. Letestu doesn’t expect the whole family to be at every game. It’s not that they don’t want to watch him play, it’s just that there are more important things.

“They like to come up here but for whatever reason they like to see the kids more than they like to see me,” Letestu laughed.

“Opening night was special, but now that I’m here 41 times a year, there’s more opportunities to come.”

Letestu scored his first goal as an Oiler on October 21, against Detroit. The win stretched the Oilers streak to three games. It’s the first goal and first win streak of hopefully many for the grinder in his new uniform… that’s what his plan is anyway. The 30-year-old centre has a three-year deal with the Oilers and clear-cut aspirations.

“The goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I think you can get careless with throwing that out there, but that has to be the goal. I think if you set your eyes on .500 or the playoffs or something like that you’re being shortsighted. The only reason we’re here is to win the Stanley Cup.

“For me, at the end of my three years, I want to be in position to with the Stanley Cup. That’s at the end of my three years here, I want to be at the point where we’re seriously talking about being Stanley Cup contenders. We’re starting in the right direction. It’s going to be a process, no doubt, but it’s not something that can’t come quickly. I think there’s a lot of talent in the room, a lot of direction and leadership. It’s going to come. For me, that’s where I want to be at the end of three years.”

For Letestu, that’s why he’s here. That’s why he’s come home.

By Chris Wescott/edmontonoilers.com

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