Physically speaking, Ryan Letts stands out from his fellow hockey players in more ways than one. As I talk to him at the Nicholas Sheran Ice Arena, the sizeable fourth-year athlete is displaying a new leg tattoo that he just received that same day. Letts is currently laid up with the notorious “lower-body injury” that serves in hockey jargon as an umbrella term for any lingering pain affecting the skating ability of the athlete. As such, he can schedule his tattoo appointment during a time normally reserved for practice. The new tattoo is a death moth, inspired by Silence of a Lambs, something that is fitting for a man not quite like the other athletes. Letts sports a massive beard more fitting of a fisherman than a hockey player (even during the playoff season), and his sartorial choices are more in line with a fine-arts student than a stereotypical jock. The most idiosyncratic feature of Letts, however, is his unusual path towards the sport of hockey and the CIS.
Letts grew up in Southern California, a place where hockey has success (in the past decade, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have both won Stanley Cups) but where the best athletes are usually funnelled into baseball or gridiron football. Letts was born in Temecula and spent his formative years in Newport Beach, where he groomed his hockey skills based on a wise investment by his father.
“My father invested into an ice rink,” says Letts, “and at age nine I began to skate for fun, recreationally.” This leisurely pastime soon turned into a serious commitment, and by his teenage years, Letts had grown into a formidable defensive forward. “At 14 and 15, I was on some pretty good travel teams out of California, and at 16, I made the Calgary Hitmen and played in the Western Hockey League for five years.” During his time in the WHL, Letts characterized himself as “an energy guy, a character guy,” who spent his playing time on the fourth line as a grinder to wear down his opposition for his star teammates on the feature lines.
His WHL career took a defining turn in 2008, when he was traded to the Spokane Chiefs. “After the start of my third year in Calgary,” says Letts, “I was traded to Spokane, and that year we won the Memorial Cup.” Timing was everything for Letts, and for that fateful trade, as that 2008 edition of the Chiefs boasted several future NHL players who banded together to give the city of Spokane its second title since 1991. To date, that 2008 Chiefs team is the last WHL team to win the Memorial Cup, as the tournament has since been dominated by teams out of the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) and QJMHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League).
Nonetheless, Letts admits that his Chiefs team was not a down-and-out favourite that season. “It was the weirdest chemistry on the team,” says Letts, “with the boys either getting along or not getting along and battling, and just a full year of adversity.” That adversity, says Letts, brought the team even closer, and the Memorial Cup win in Kitchener can be summed up by Letts in one statement: “It was wild.”
What overshadowed the Chiefs’ win in the media, however, was the trophy presentation ceremony, where the overzealous captain of the Chiefs shook the ancient trophy too hard and caused the cup portion to break free from the wooden base. This sent the 40 pound hulk of oak crashing to the ice, and made a joyous moment all the more serious. “As soon as the trophy hit the ice, it was dead quiet in the arena,” laughs Letts. “That didn’t stop us from celebrating.”
Ryan Letts is obviously very intelligent, and his diplomatic stance on issues that plague both the WHL and the CIS are testament to that intelligence. In regards to fighting in hockey, Letts says that “fighting can solve problems, and it also can create problems.” Coming from a league where fighting is celebrated (the WHL) to where fighting is strictly prohibited (the CIS), Letts cites several pros and cons of the absence of fighting in his current league. “By taking fighting out of the CIS, it creates more jaw-jamming and chirping out of players. This causes no fear of abiding by the rules in players.”
While he is no enforcer in the WHL, Letts did drop the gloves a time or two, and saw it as just a part of internal policing within the game. As a sociology major, Letts can relate the prohibition of fighting in the CIS to the league “changing the social construct of the game,” and creating a new set of problems with the reckless players having no sense of consequence. It is rare to find an athlete with such academic insight into their sport. For the idiosyncratic Ryan Letts, however, it comes across as natural.
Letts understands that nothing can last forever, and that an athlete’s career is subject to the ticking clock of expiry. “Within any athlete’s career,” says Letts, “you’re never going to know how long you’ll be able to play.” That is why Letts took the option of joining the Pronghorns very seriously. “I consolidated with my parents, and they said there is nothing wrong with going to school and playing hockey. I wanted to be challenged on the ice and challenged in the classroom.”
The choice to come to Lethbridge was made in part to geographical preference, part because of head hockey coach Greg Gatto, and part because of his time spent in Calgary. “I didn’t want to deal with Winnipeg winters or Saskatchewan’s boring prairies. Greg Gatto came to the table, and Lethbridge seemed like a good choice.” Letts admits that the CIS is more liberating than the stuffy WHL, and that the sense of freedom that comes with being a student athlete is very enjoyable. “[In the WHL], they groom you off the ice and on the ice to attend to their rules and regulations. It’s a sense of freedom in the CIS.”
On the Pronghorns, Letts remains a high-energy, third-line guy who brings passion and experience to a squad oftentimes mired in losing. He remains dedicated to his position as a student first, athlete second, and will continue to play hockey while he finishes his degree. In regards to his future, Letts is committed to participation in hockey, no matter what the level. “I’d like to continue playing hockey after university,” he says. When pressed about a coaching future, Letts is more self-reflective about this prospect. “As far as coaching goes,” he says, “it’s going to take patience to deal with kids that I’ve been like.” If his idiosyncrasies made Letts a tough kid to handle, they have certainly brought him further than any of his coaches could have imagined.