'It was my time': After a decade as head coach of Tomahawks, Letizia resigns, puts focus on family

Apr. 15—Mike Letizia resigned as head coach of the Johnstown Tomahawks Monday morning, ending a tenure dating to the inaugural season of the North American Hockey League franchise.

Letizia, 39, had a year remaining on his contract with the team, but citing his commitment to raising a young family in Somerset, he tendered his resignation two days after the New Jersey Titans swept a best-of-3 playoff series at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.

"It's all good. It was my decision. It's tough, but it was my time," Letizia said during a telephone interview on Monday. "Obviously, my kids are growing up. I'm at their activities quite a bit. They're growing. They're on their own endeavors now."

Letizia led the Tomahawks to a 338-200-49 record in 10 seasons as head coach. He served as an assistant coach to Jason Spence during the franchise's first two seasons in Johnstown in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

The Tomahawks made the postseason six times in nine opportunities under Letizia, with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic resulting in the cancellation of the 2020 playoffs when Johnstown was in second place.

"I put my heart and soul into the Tomahawks. It's 24/7," Letizia said. "It doesn't stop when you leave the rink. Sometimes you may carry that over as a dad or a husband where you're maybe not 100% in the mindset with them. I want to be a bigger part of their lives and be able to enjoy all of their experiences with them as a dad."

Letizia and his wife Alana, a math teacher at Rockwood School District for 16 years, have two children, Myla, 11, and Niko, 6.

"He had another year on his contract. He has spoken often about the focus on family," said first-year Tomahawks majority owner John Koufis. "So, it was always something in the back of my mind that the pull could become strong enough to prompt a life change."

A resident of Chicago and chief financial officer of a privately owned global company that sells industrial vibratory equipment, Koufis and a group of local owners took over the USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior level franchise a year ago. The new leadership injected energy and a detailed-oriented business plan while enhancing both on-ice and off-ice training.

Koufis credited Letizia with helping in the transition.

"If you look at junior hockey in general, stability is probably a word I would not connect with junior hockey," Koufis said. "(With the Tomahawks) being an existing franchise coming into a new market back then (2012-13), to help get it stable and have that foundation to take hold in Johnstown, having Mike be a part of that ride from the beginning certainly helped establish the franchise in Johnstown."

The NAHL named Letizia Coach of the Year in 2018-19, when the Tomahawks reached the Robertson Cup semifinal round. The team went a franchise-best 47-9-4 during the regular season and won two playoff series as East Division regular-season and playoff champions.

Letizia also earned NAHL East Division Coach of the Year three straight seasons from 2018-19 through 2020-21.

Johnstown had four first-round playoff series setbacks under Letizia, including this past season.

The team reached the second round once and advanced to the league's final four at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota, during the memorable 2019 postseason.

Letizia put the Tomahawks among the top tier of NAHL teams to send players to the NCAA Division I college level, which is the primary objective of the USA Hockey Tier II Junior level NAHL.

"In Division I, it's close to 100 players who made it," Letizia said. "As far as NCAA overall, it's three or four times as much. Almost every season, everybody is going somewhere, whether it's Division I or Division III or a high-end Canadian college."

Letizia ranked his experience with the players above all the wins and losses his Tomahawks produced.

"The games are only part of it," Letizia said. "It's the relationships and the memories you build along the way and look back on. Those are the most important things."

Letizia didn't elaborate on his future plans. He intends to be involved in youth hockey with his children.

The Letizias still will consider the Tomahawks and the team's fans as part of their family.

When Alana battled breast cancer throughout the 2018-19 season, the organization and fans supported the coach and his family. Similarly, when Letizia's father died, the hockey community had the coach's back.

"The kids were kind of born into the organization and grew up with the team," Letizia said. "I look back and I went through some tough times off the ice when my wife got diagnosed with breast cancer.

"The team was just incredible with the support and how we came together. My dad passed a couple years later, and that was tough, too. But again we had that family environment."

Koufis didn't have an exact timeframe for finding Letizia's replacement.

"We've got an advisory group that will help me vet all of the various candidates," Koufis said. "To quote an old phrase, 'I go slowly so that I may arrive quickly.' Would we like to do it as soon as possible given the time of the draft in June and our pre-draft camps? It would be nice to have someone in place by then.

"But if we don't, it's not end of the world. I don't want to hire a coach. I want to hire the right coach."