Goodbye 2020 and don’t come back. This past year has been a challenge for everyone. I could be wrong but I do believe Mark ‘the Marksman’ Letestu, who recently announced his retirement from the NHL, might have been playing for another year if not for COVID-19.
From the first time I saw him play there was always something special about him. When I dug into my old archives clippings I found an excerpt from the Sportshound’s column in the Elk Point Review from February 3rd, 1998. It was a provincial round robin game. The Elk Point Peewee Blades were coached by Murry Neilson and Lucian Hoffman. The team manager was big Ray Danyluk. The Blades were down by three goals in the first game of the two game total point series against Bonnyville. The second game of the two-game total point provincial round robin was to be played in Bonnyville. Blades had their backs against the wall. The winner moves on to the next round and the loser goes home. Elk Point won the second game by four goals to take the series and move on.
Here’s what I had to say about the young Marksman that week when he scored five goals including the winner, “Mark Letestu was given the player of the game by this sports reporter after scoring five goals in this contest. Mark, a first year peewee, with all the tools is really leaving his mark in the hockey world, and mark my words, with some size in the next few years this kid could be going places. Happy birthday tomorrow Mark!“
How did I know back then this guy was destined to go to the NHL? Just a lucky guess. From Elk Point to the show. But, he certainly didn’t get there by luck.
I’ve seen a lot of young players just a talented as Mark at that same age over the years. Here is the difference as far as I concerned. Mark was dedicated to improving his game to the highest level, which took a lot of extra hard work. Especially at practice, he would go the extra mile to make himself better. Mark didn’t want to play summer hockey. He loved baseball and I believe it made him a better hockey player in the end. Hand eye coordination is a real key in baseball. He would play ball in the summer and was one of the best pitchers the Sox ever had. We won our very first midget provincial gold in 2003 with him on the mound for the final game.
Another big thing, Mark was very coachable. Whenever I would ask him to play right field, he would trot out there. Not grumble or stand out there and pout with his arms crossed like other players I know. Body language can tell a lot about a coachable player. I’m sure you don’t pout sitting on the bench if you want to play in the big league. After ball season was over in late July, Mark would always borrow a net from the arena and take it home to his driveway to practice his shots. I believe he became a sniper because he practiced shooting all the time. Not just on the ice for a few minutes at practice twice a week.
After his days in Elk Point the Marksman went on to play Junior B in St. Paul and sniped a lot of goals. Then playing Junior A in Bonnyville for three years he did the same, leading the league in 2005/ 06 with 105 points and named the AJHL most valuable player. He was then was offered a scholarship from Western Michigan University, finishing his first season in 6th place in the league in goals. Everywhere he played he performed. Somehow I always knew the big day would come. The Pittsburgh Penguins signed him on March 22 2007. Playing for the farm team the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for a year and a bit he made his NHL debut on November 14th, 2009 against the Boston Bruins.
We watched him play his very first NHL game out at Mark’s in-law’s, George and Debbie Hahn’s house. They have all the NHL channels. I didn’t see him score his first goal live, but I do have an autographed picture of him scoring his first goal against Ryan Miller on February 1st, 2010 in Buffalo.
Mark never forgot about any of us in Elk Point. When he played for Pittsburgh or later when he was with Columbus, they would come to play in Edmonton usually only once a year. Mark would arrange to get a few passes to see him after the game. I would bring a few kids with me and take them to the end zone where the Zamboni is stored. He would meet us there for a few minutes signing autographs for the kids. The players never had a lot of time after the games and his parents and brother would be there too. But he always made time for us.
When he signed with the Edmonton Oilers everyone was thrilled. By the way, he told me he almost signed with the Leafs if they would have given him a three-year deal he may have. When the Oilers moved to the new Rogers Center, he arranged for passes into the players lounge for myself and a few close friends from town. I even got Connor McDavid’s autograph one time plus a bunch of other Oilers.
During the lockout he came out to Elk Point many times to skate with the kids and sign autographs. And a few other times, if he had a few days off, which wasn’t very often, he would come to town to see his parents and practice with some of our teams. His wife Brett invited a few of us from Elk Point to a surprise party at their house to celebrate his 500th NHL game. A lot of the Oilers were there that night. It made me feel special to be invited and visit with some of the Oilers. In fact, I always felt fortunate just having the opportunity to know him personally.
What do you think his future will be? Likely coaching, scouting or maybe as a broadcast analyst. But more importantly, spending time with his family. I believe he will be coaching his two boys and daughter in baseball or hockey or both.
Last April when COVID-19 first hit, he sent me a few clips of the boys batting and pitching in the yard at his house in Columbus. I know for sure baseball is in his blood almost as much as hockey. Hopefully someday after COVID-19 is gone he will be back in town with the family and we can go play catch or pound a few balls in the batting cage with his boys out at Bassett Field!
“I’ll always have your back Dougie!“ – Mark Letestu, using my back to sign autographs for kids.