Alberta boy has small town riled up for Oilers playoff run

Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu's one-timer started a comeback over the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, but he's also making hockey fans in the small town of Elk Point, Alta. proud.

The hometown of the Oilers centre is located about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

"He just has a special gift for scoring important goals," said Doug Bassett, Letestu's former baseball coach. "I think he'll score a few more important ones this year."

Letestu scored the Oilers' second goal Thursday night, making the score 3-2 for the Sharks. The Oilers would go on to win the game in overtime, taking a 3-2 series lead into San Jose on Saturday.

Bassett was excited as he watched Letestu score Thursday night, but he wasn't surprised. He credits the 32-year-old's work ethic for the timely goals.

Bassett, an Elk Point resident for three decades, is somewhat of a fixture at the town's A.G. Ross Arena. He works the scoreboard and plays music for minor hockey games.

When the rink would shut down for the summer, he would let Letestu borrow the nets so he could shoot pucks in his driveway.

"I think that's where he developed his shot. Practice, practice, practice," he said.

Hometown display

Letestu was an undrafted free agent when he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. He later played four seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before signing with the Oilers last season.

He had 35 points this season, a career high.

In the Elk Point arena, there's a tribute to Letestu's hockey career enshrined in glass, going all the way back from his early days.

Beside an Oilers jersey with his name on the back sits pictures from his time in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Bonnyville Pontiacs and even a player card from when he played peewee hockey.

But it wasn't all about hockey for Letestu. Bassett says he was also a very skilled baseball player who helped Elk Point win championships.

"He was really good at pitching," he said. "He wouldn't have a problem when you'd say, 'Hey, Mark, run out to right field.'

"That's the thing I liked about him the best."

Giving back to Elk Point

Similar to the rest of the province, many people in the town of 1,500 rely on the oil and gas industry. 

But right now, Oilers stock is the highest it's been in 11 years — and the locals are getting behind their hometown player.

"It's a huge excitement for the community. The kids love seeing Mark score," said Tyler Warawa,  the vice-president of the Elk Point Minor Hockey Association.

In March, Letestu returned to his hometown rink to meet the town's up-and-coming players and to sign a few autographs. Warawa says the NHLer is winning over young players.

"He skates with all the minor hockey kids. There's not a kid that misses it," Warawa said.

And as the Oilers try to further their playoff run, the town of Elk Point would likely be cheering for them anyway — having their hometown player on the roster is just a bonus.

"This is an Alberta-wide thing," Letestu told reporters Friday, when asked about the local support he's received. "The support is certainly there from the whole province."

San Jose hosts Game 6 between the Oilers and Sharks at 8:30 p.m., where the Oilers could finish the series with a win.

Travis.McEwan@cbc.ca

@TravisMcEwanCBC