Introductions? Orientations? Neither was necessary when the Johnstown Tomahawks named their new head coach on Tuesday morning.
The new guy in charge handled the job for the past month and has been part of the organization since the North American Hockey League team moved to Johnstown in 2012.
The Tomahawks found their man, Mike Letizia, within Cambria County War Memorial Arena. Letizia had served as coach Jason Spence’s assistant and director of scouting the past two seasons. The Tomahawks didn’t renew Spence’s contract.
“We were looking for the right persons to lead our team, and we’re very pleased to find that fit within our own organization,” Tomahawks General Manager Rick Boyd said. “Mike has demonstrated true commitment to our team and he has excelled at everything we’ve asked him to do. He deserves this opportunity.”
Letizia was busy with the NAHL draft on Tuesday. He also recently concluded the first of three camps.
The 29-year-old is ready to put his stamp on a team he had an integral role in building with Spence and Boyd.
“Our job here is to develop these guys and make them better players,” Letizia said. “I know it sounds like a cliche, but that’s really the ultimate goal of junior hockey is bringing guys in here and making them better. No matter what age they are they’ve got to be better when they leave Johnstown. We want to move them on to Division I and Division III hockey programs.”
Letizia played four seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the highly-regarded Ontario Hockey League and one season for the Rockford Ice Hogs of the United Hockey League before becoming a coach with Johnstown.
“I think hockey is a pretty simple game,” Letizia said. “Obviously, I’m my own guy and I have my own ideas and styles and philosophies. I was fortunate that I actually played on a pretty successful junior hockey program with Plymouth in the OHL. The head coach there, Mike Vellucci, was one of the best coaches of that league. He’s won over 500 games and he just was named an assistant general manager in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. I learned a lot from him in my four years there.
“The biggest thing he always said with junior hockey is just giving these kids discipline, rewards and consequences. It’s a little bit less about systems and the X’s and O’s of the game. You teach them a way to play and how you want them to do things. You want to keep everybody bought into what you want to accomplish.”
Letizia conducted the Tomahawks’ first summer tryout camp last weekend near Detroit and he will hold additional camps in Chicago (June 13-15) and near Pittsburgh (June 27-29).
Top players from those camps will be invited to the Tomahawks’ main camp in Johnstown in July.
“Basically over the last month my job has pretty much been to handle our current roster, keep in touch with those guys and also handle recruiting,” Letizia said. “The draft is (Tuesday). That gives us another opportunity to bring in players.”
The Tomahawks selected Greensburg native Dalton Hunter ninth overall in Tuesday’s NAHL Draft. Hunter is a 16-year-old right wing who played last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 18U team, where he had eight goals in 22 games. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound forward has some Division I college interest.
Johnstown also added defenseman Carter Ekberg of McMurry in the third round.
“Our tryout camp was just finished in Michigan this past weekend, and it was a really good camp, very well attended,” Letizia said. “We have a camp in the Chicago area in two weeks and Pittsburgh at the end of the month. My job the last couple years has been recruiting players and helping in every other aspect. Now, I’m handling the coaching duties.”
Tomahawks President Richard Bouchard feels Letizia will move the team in the proper direction. The Tomahawks have been solid during the regular season, but suffered two first-round playoff defeats.
“Mike’s vision for this team is exactly where we want our organization to go moving forward,” Bouchard said. “His work ethic towards scouting and developing our players for the next level is tremendous. His loyalty and passion for both the organization and the Greater Johnstown community really set him apart.”
Spence privately spoke to reporters about his support of Letizia as a possible candidate in the weeks after the team parted ways with him.
Letizia said his former boss contacted him soon after the news broke Tuesday morning.
“We had a really good relationship for two years,” Letizia said of Spence. “I didn’t even know Jason before we started with the Tomahawks. Once I met him we had a real good relationship. He was the first guy to text me this morning and he congratulated me. That meant a lot.
“This opportunity is my chance to put a stamp on this team. I don’t want to fill anybody’s shoes. I want to be my own guy. The players are the most important part of this organization. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Letizia, his wife and daughter reside in Somerset.
“I’ve been here since 2010 and my wife is from Somerset,” Letizia said. “I moved here with her. Everybody has been accepting and welcoming to me. I enjoy it. I have a great support staff with my wife and daughter and my family back in Chicago.
“This is a special place to coach and a special place for these guys to play. It’s special to be a part of Johnstown in general and the history here. My biggest thing as the new head coach is I want to make sure that these guys are the new blood and the new era of Tomahawks. The fans have been so supportive of them over the first two years. I love being a part of this community and interacting with them.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.