Off to the NHL

Thunder Bay’s Trevor Letowski will enter his first NHL coaching job after a successful run in the Ontario Hockey League with Sarnia and Windsor.

Trevor Letowski’s journey back to the National Hockey League — and being on the payroll of one of the league’s most famous teams — happened within a matter of days.

On Wednesday, the Thunder Bay native was announced as the newest assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens. The hiring marks a return to the league for the former player-turned-coach who had guided the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires for the last six seasons.

“It feels good. My last season (as an NHLer) was in 2008 and then I left to go to Russia for a couple of years. It’s been a long time,” Letowski told The Chronicle-Journal in a phone interview. “I’m excited about that. There’s obviously a level of professionalism that goes along with it. It’s the best league in the world. It’s the best players. For the most part, it’s the best coaches. You’re dealing with a lot of good people. I’m excited to get back into that atmosphere and experience that again.”

Letowski, 44, had worked with current Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme at the 2016 and 2018 world junior hockey championships.

After leading Montreal to a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final, Ducharme was rewarded with a new three-year contract on July 13. He reached out to Letowski shortly before that with an offer for a reunion.

“Just with their success, I was not expecting that call,” Letowski said. “(Ducharme) reached out to me and said his contract was going to be signed any day and he was just gauging interest.

“It didn’t really start happening until less than a week (ago),” he added. “I didn’t foresee it happening this quickly, but there was sensitivity to Windsor because their camp opens in August. I put them in a bad spot. They have to ask for permission. If it was going happen, it would have had to have happened quickly for both sides, so it did. It was kind of a whirlwind the last four days to get a contract done.”

Ducharme said in a team statement that Letowski is a versatile coach who will help young players improve. Letowski joins fellow assistant coaches Luke Richardson and Alex Burrows.

Eric Staal, who is also from Thunder Bay, played half a season with the Canadiens this past spring, but is an unrestricted free agent and isn’t a sure bet to return.

But the Canadiens have plenty of young pieces that Letowski can sink his teeth into, including Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov.

“Everyone I’ve talked to raves about the kind of environment there. It seems to be a very good feeling. They obviously went on an awesome ride this year that was great for all the young players. I’m sure they’re going to want to strive to do it again and try to win one. Montreal is fresh on a lot of people’s minds because they played in the final,” Letowski said.

“It’s been humbling in a way to be included and be asked to be part of a storied franchise like that. Whether you’re a Habs fan or not, anyone who grows up in Canada knows what the Montreal Canadiens are and what they represent and the history.”

Letowski made a lasting impression during his time in Windsor. After making his coaching debut with the Sarnia Sting from 2010 to 2015, Letowski was named associate coach for the Spitfire the following season, and helped lead Windsor to the Memorial Cup championship in 2017. He then served as the head coach for three seasons. The 2020-21 OHL season was ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a quick end.

“It’s always bittersweet. I’ve been in Windsor for six years and I have a lot of good relationships there. I have a great staff of coaches. The ownership is great and we have a good team coming back. We had stuck together through this crazy year,” he said. “You’re going to miss those people in Windsor. But it’s part of the game. The OHL prides itself as a development league, not just for players but also for everyone in all different roles. Guys for the most part want to move forward and get these type of jobs.”

The former seventh round draft pick spent nine seasons in the NHL between 1998 and 2008, playing 616 regular season games with the Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Columbus Blue Jackets (where Letowski and Richardson were teammates) and the Carolina Hurricanes.

During his time in the NHL, Letowski recorded 84 goals and 117 assists.

For now, Letowski and his family — wife Amy and their daughters, Graci, 11, and five-year-old Emerie — will spend the rest of the summer in Thunder Bay before heading back east in late August.

He’s confident he’ll make it through this job transition because of them.

“When you’re in hockey positions in high levels, you need their support. They’ve just been great,” Letowski said. “As a family, they want me to do it. I couldn’t do it without them. It’s been kind of fun, not just for me, but we’re looking forward to the experience for my family as well.”