Johnstown Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia doesn’t need to be told who is the toughest member of his North American Hockey League team.
As coach of a sport known for its physicality and speed on the ice, Letizia drew strength and inspiration from his wife, Alana, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31 in June 2018.
“She’s incredibly tough, and tougher than I’ll ever be,” said Letizia, who was named the NAHL East Division Coach of the Year after leading the Tomahawks to a record-breaking season in 2018-19.
“There are really no words to say how proud I am of her and how much I love her.
“It was her strength. It was really inspiring to me. To be honest, I felt like she made me a better person because of how strong she was. I had to be just as strong or stronger to show her how appreciative I was.”
Alana and Mike Letizia have two young children, Myla, 6, and Niko, 2. The family persevered together throughout a trying and often emotional year. The Letizias received plenty of support from their Tomahawks family, too.
‘A good distraction’
“We had a difficult year and for Mike to have such a great year on the ice was really a good distraction for all of us,” said Alana Letizia, who returned to her classroom as a mathematics teacher at Rockwood High School in August. “We’ve become a family. My kids love the players.
“Their families become our family. We spend so much time together. To have them support us was something special.
“ ‘Faith over Fear’ was our motto for the year,” she said.
“Some of the guys even tattooed that on their bodies at the end of the season.”
The Tomahawks set team records and topped the NAHL with 47 regular-season wins and 98 points in the standings.
Johnstown advanced to the semifinal round of the Robertson Cup playoffs in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Tomahawks posted 25 consecutive home wins and had a franchise-record 17-game winning streak from Oct. 13 through Dec. 2.
Even as his team produced one of the greatest seasons in Johnstown hockey history, Mike Letizia’s thoughts always were with Alana and the children. He juggled his schedule as much as possible to be there for appointments, treatments and surgery.
‘They really understood’
Wins and losses took a back seat. His assistant coaches, players and front-office staff with the Tomahawks covered for the coach.
“For us, my job is coaching the team,” said Mike Letizia, who lost both of his grandmothers to cancer. “Being able to have the guys to be there to support us and obviously do well on the ice made things less stressful at times. It was a really good team, a really good group.
“They really understood what was going on with us.
“I missed a few practices, missed a trip or two to be with Alana,” Mike Letizia said.
“The guys never missed a beat. Having Nick (Perri) as an assistant coach and Rick Bouchard (team president) and the support they gave to me to put my family first was a big part of it. The help they gave me and gave us made a really difficult situation easier.”
In the 16 months since her diagnosis, Alana Letizia has had six rounds of chemotherapy from July through December 2018. She underwent surgery in January.
“Then she continued two targeted therapy medications that were delivered intravenously through the beginning of August,” Mike Letizia said. “She will have to take oral medication for at least 10 years as well as a few other medical procedures and testing and check ups.”
Mike Letizia said “there is no evidence of the disease after the surgery and treatment.”
‘Act as normal as possible’
A few months after her diagnosis, Alana helped Myla start school at Maple Ridge Elementary in Somerset. She’s now a first grader.
“It was Myla’s first year going to school, and Niko was so young,” Alana Letizia recalled. “I was thankful for that. Myla didn’t see a lot of the things. She’d go to school. I’d try to act as normal as possible.
“I went to every dance practice, every gymnastics practice. We tried to live as normal as possible. I wasn’t going to let this change things. I think I missed one or two games.”
Alana provided an inspirational presence at Tomahawks games. When the ‘Hawks clinched the East Division semifinal playoff series against the Northeast Generals in April, Mike glanced to the seats where Alana sits in 1st Summit Arena.
“It’s been a tough year for us, obviously, and this team has been the one thing that has kept us real positive,” Mike Letizia said at the time. “We talked before the game about how we’ve been through a lot and this isn’t as much of a challenge as life is.”
‘Real Men Wear Pink’
It’s a new NAHL season, but Alana Letizia continues to inspire her husband and his players.
Mike Letizia enthusiastically has embraced the “Real Men Wear Pink = Men Fighting Against Breast Cancer” campaign to support the American Cancer Society mission.
Through Wednesday afternoon, Letizia’s page on the “Real Men Wear Pink” website raised $3,969 of his $5,000 goal.
Each day this month, Letizia has worn pink and used social media, with the help of the Tomahawks, to promote the cause.
“Definitely having Mike, my children, my parents, sisters, friends, family, neighbors – everyone around me got me through it,” Alana Letizia said. “I met many cancer patient friends through this journey who have helped me emotionally, physically, mentally.”
Her return to the classroom also has provided a boost.
“I was super nervous to go back to school. Just being off so long,” Alana Letizia said.
“The support of my colleagues and my administration was amazing. They were with me the whole time. They did many benefits, dress down days at school, and helped with the basket party.
“I had a lot of kids come up to me and ask me how I was feeling. On social media some students said they were praying for me.”
Back to work for Mike Letizia means back to the ice at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial. After a somewhat slow start, the Tomahawks climbed to third place in the East Division, only two points out of the top spot.
‘The right thing to say’
The coach in Letizia knows there are greater challenges than those presented by a fast-skating opponent. His wife has showed him and their children how to best face adversity.
“There definitely are a lot of difficult times, emotional times,” Mike Letizia said.
“For me it’s tough. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what the right thing to say is or what the right thing to do is. I tried to be there for her as much as I could.”
Alana Letizia said she appreciates each day and looks toward the future prepared to both fight against a disease but also enjoy life.
“We just talked about how much has happened within a year,” Alana Letizia said. “I couldn’t be more thankful to come out of this on the other side healthy. It’s scary. It’s something I’m going to have to live through still.
“For me it was more of an emotional battle. I could handle the treatments but the emotional battle is really tough. We’re going to go about living our life. We know life is short. We’re going to take advantage of the time you have.”