Mark Letestu isn’t sure when, or even if, his next NHL game will come. But the 35-year-old deserves plenty of praise for working himself back into playing shape and making himself an option after enduring a hellish season in which his life and his career were placed in peril.
For those reasons, Letestu has been selected as the Winnipeg Jets’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
“It’s an honour, for sure. I didn’t expected to be nominated for any NHL awards,” the veteran of 567 big-league games told the Free Press with a chuckle in a telephone interview on Monday from his off-season home in Columbus, Ohio.
“Perseverance, dedication, those words are pretty special to me. The unfortunate part of the award is it seems like you have to go through something, a little negative experience.”
Letestu signed a one-year free agent deal with the Jets last summer and began the season as a fourth-line centre. But the product of Elk Point, Alta. dressed for only seven games before he was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
The Jets’ medical staff first noticed abnormalities in testing, and an MRI and further evaluation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., confirmed it. The condition reduces the heart’s ability to pump, while also causing abnormal heart rhythms, and can lead to death if not caught soon enough.
The long road to recovery began, and Letestu got the green light in early March to resume skating with his Jets teammates wearing a yellow non-contact jersey. That went so well that Letestu was assigned to the Manitoba Moose on a conditioning assignment, where he was expected to play a handful of games before returning to the Jets for the stretch drive.
He jumped on a plane to Milwaukee, where the AHL club was set to play next, only to quickly learn the entire sports world was being halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(The AHL assignment) was something I really wanted. It doesn’t matter how much practise you go through, you’re just not going to get to that level of being an option and even then, being an option was a long shot. There were a lot of bodies (with the Jets) that had really grinded out to be in a position to compete for a playoff spot, it almost felt unfair to take anybody’s spot. But that was the best course for me to at least become an option,” said Letestu.
“Sitting around for six months and then to get so close to being able to play again, and then kinda get shut down again, it feels like a continuation of what I’m going through. It feels almost incomplete. But eventually my hope is I get to play in the playoffs and hopefully put a bow on this thing.”
That could come later this summer, provided the NHL’s return-to-play protocol gets the green light for teams to proceed to training camp in mid-July followed by a 24-team Stanley Cup playoff tournament held in two hub cities likely from August to early October.
The Masterton is under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. It’s named after Bill Masterton, the only NHL player to die from injuries sustained in a game.
Members of each chapter of the PHWA, which includes several Free Press writers, vote on the team representative. All 31 finalists were to be announced this morning, with the ultimate winner again voted on by the PHWA and revealed whenever the NHL holds their annual award ceremony, which will likely be in virtual form this year.
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