A crowd 1,452 strong packed into the RJ Lalonde Arena and watched as former Pontiacs captain Mark Letestu had his No. 11 raised into the rafters on Saturday prior to the team’s game against the Olds Grizzlys.
The ceremony was sort of a homecoming for Letestu, who grew up 53 kilometers south of Bonnyville in Elk Point, and played four seasons with the Pontiacs from 2002 to 2006. In 190 regular season games the ex-Pontiacs sniper racked up 118 goals and 139 assists.
Letestu, who was joined at centre ice by his mother, father, wife and three children, watched a short tribute video before seeing his No. 11 join Mike Germann’s No. 20 and Matt Cook’s No. 23 up in the east end of the RJ Lalonde Arena.
“I had the opportunity to sit and listen to Glen Sather when he was honoured on his night (in Edmonton) and he spoke about luck. It was something that resonated with me,” said Letestu, addressing the large crowd.
“Things like this don’t happen without a lot of luck. For me the luck was being from Elk Point and being able to play in Bonnyville in front of my family and friends.”
Letestu’s hockey career wasn’t fueled by a dream to play in the NHL. He didn’t play Midget AAA hockey. In fact, he was playing for the St. Paul Jr. B Canadiens in 2002 when he caught the eye of then Bonnyville Jr. A Pontiacs head coach Jeff Pister. It took a little convincing, but Pister was able to persuade Letestu into playing in Bonnyville.
“For me (Bonnyville) is where the path to the NHL really started,” said Letestu.
“I wish we would have won a championship. It didn’t happen that way, but I met a lot of great friends, got a lot of great memories and it put me on the path I went on.”
After spending four seasons with the Pontiacs, Letestu went on to play one season of collegiate hockey with Western Michigan University.
On March 22, 2007, the Pittsburgh Penguins signed him as an undrafted free agent. He then split a few seasons between the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins and East Coast Hockey League’s Wheeling Nailers.
Since then the former Pontiac has gone on to play 368 NHL games with Pittsburgh, Columbus and Edmonton collecting 65 goals and 75 assists. In his first season with the Oilers the 30-year-old Alberta native has seven goals and six assists in 50 games.
With the NHL season on pause for the All-Star break Letestu was able to make the trek north to Bonnyville to be honoured by the organization.
“It was important for the team. It was important for the fans. It was important for the whole community,” said current Pontiacs captain Steenn Pasichnuk, who grew up watching Letestu tear up the AJHL as a member of the Pontiacs.
“I watched him play as a kid and then he made it to the NHL. It is really refreshing to see a guy like that come back and pay his respects to Bonnyville and to the organization.”
While Letestu was the focus of Saturday’s ceremony, the event did serve another purpose for the Pontiacs by giving the players and fans a first-hand look at what is possible when one puts on the Bonnyville black, white and gold.
“It represented and reflected the importance of the privilege it is to be a Bonnyville Pontiac,” said Swan. “What Mark represents is if you work hard and stay on that path and that journey that is where excellence is.”
The special evening also featured the Pontiacs donning special retro Letestu jerseys. Every player that skated in warm-up wore the early 2000’s styled black, white, grey and red No. 11 Bonnyville jersey complete with a Letestu autograph.
The entire night was something that Letestu never expected, but he took it in stride and tried to enjoy every last second.
“It was fun to be out there. It was a really cool moment,” said Letestu. “I don’t really know if it has sunk in yet. I was just out there trying to soak in the moment. Hopefully (the No. 11 banner) is something that is an inspiration for the kids in the area to play hard and try to make it in hockey.”