From Wheeling to Winnipeg, former Penguins forward Mark Letestu endures
After more than a decade in the NHL, journeyman Mark Letestu finally made headlines.
During a preseason home game against the Edmonton Oilers on Sept. 26, the Jets forward was sitting on the bench and needed a pick-me-up.
So he utilized to a curious performance-enhancement substance the World Anti-Doping Agency typically does not test for.
Turning to his right, Letestu took a yellow packet of Heinz mustard from a team staffer and squeezed its contents into his mouth.
“That’s a Winnipeg Jets thing,” Letestu said. “I’ve always had issues with cramping, hydration. I’ve had different solutions in different spots. On the bench (versus) Edmonton, I just asked, ‘Hey, you got pickle juice, salt, something?’ He’s like, ‘No we don’t, but we’ve got mustard.’
“What do you mean?’
“Well, guys here use it, and it works. They swear by it.’
“Sure enough, I took a pack, and the cramps go away. The rest is infamy, I guess.’”
The bizarre sequence was captured by TSN and was quickly aggregated to seemingly any online entity.
Chances are, even if Letestu were to score an overtime goal in Game 7 of Stanley Cup final, he still would be known as “the hockey player who eats mustard.”
Unlike the condiment he now forever is connected to, he is not sour about that potential designation.
“If there’s anything that’s attached to an NHL career, that’s fine by me,” he said. “I got to play here. If it’s mustard or a Stanley Cup, I’m just happy that I was here.”
Much like Heinz, Letestu got his start in Pittsburgh.
Undrafted, Letestu was signed by the Penguins out of Western Michigan in 2007. After parts of four seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and a cup of coffee in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers in 2007-08, Letestu made his NHL debut in 2009-10.
A member of the NHL Penguins for parts of three seasons, the high point of Letestu’s tenure in Pittsburgh came in 2010-11 when injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin resulted in Letestu serving as the team’s de facto No. 1 center with a developing James Neal on his left wing and an aging Alex Kovalev to his right.
Early in 2011-12, Letestu was traded three hours east to the Columbus Blue Jackets. After four seasons in Central Ohio, the Elk Point, Alberta native went west and signed a four-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Late in the 2017-18 season, he was traded back to the Blue Jackets.
During the 2018 offseason, Letestu re-signed with the Blue Jackets but on a one-year two-way contract and spent the vast majority of the 2018-19 campaign in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters. In 64 AHL games, he scored 21 goals and 50 points.
Even after a season of bus rides to Canada and upstate New York, Letestu didn’t give up hope of a return to the NHL as he entered his mid-30s.
This past offseason, Letestu, 34, signed a one-year two-way contract with the Jets.
“I knew I was always capable of it,” Letestu said. “But the game is changing. A lot of teams have gone young, whether it’s cap reasons or preference. So you don’t know if there’s an opportunity for it. But I was willing to go to the minor leagues and work my way back. Fortunately, I kind of came to a situation where I had an opportunity to do it in training camp and not have to go down right away and work my way through it. So far, I’ve made the most of it.”
How does a 30-something who wasn’t drafted and spent his most recent professional season at an inferior league find a way to still contribute in a league which increasingly values younger, faster and cheaper talent?
“The same way I always have,” Letestu said. “It’s not like coming out of college or the minors, I was this huge blue-chip prospect. You always had to adjust and find your way in a lineup. What was needed, or a role. And I’ve always been good at that, finding a role on a team. Even here, as a depth centerman, I know what I need to provide. That helps and gives the coaches some confidence when they put me on the ice.”
Letestu’s guile provides plenty of confidence for Jets coach Paul Maurice.
“He’s been a real good veteran presence, but also a real smart guy,” Maurice said. “If he wants to get into coaching, he’ll be able to do that fast. He watched our systems once, had them all dialed in.”
A center throughout most of his career, Letestu has primarily been used as a right winger through three games with the Jets. He’s learned the value of versatility during his 11 seasons in the NHL.
“It’s helping me right now switching to the wing, especially with the way the lineup is being shuffled,” he said. “So it gives me opportunities to stay in the lineup longer. You’re not getting kind of pigeonholed as just a center or just as a winger or a one-dimensional player. So it helps. It’s worked out for me.”
At 34, Letestu is at an age when many of his peers retire instead of opting to hang on for one last contract. One of his former teammates, ex-Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy, retired this past summer at the age of 35 to pursue other interests.
“It’s getting closer,” Letestu said. “(My family and I) really didn’t consider it this summer just because I knew I could still play. I went back to the (AHL) and scored at the same level I did when I was 24 in that league. I knew the capability to get it done was still there. Had I walked away, I’d probably regret it.”
It’s hard to imagine there have been many regrets in carving out a decade and change as an NHLer considering his modest beginnings as a professional.
“I’ve been really lucky,” Letestu said. “Healthy. A lot of things have gone well. And I still love to play. And when you get those ingredients, it makes for a long career.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .