The captain isn't indifferent about his Bears falling out in the quarterfinals but he always sees the brighter side of the medal...
Defenceman Alan Letang has spent four full seasons in the Medveščak jersey, four seasons wearing a "C" on his chest, four seasons fighting for Zagreb's club, and four seasons giving inspiring speeches in the locker room to motivate, encourage, and give the players strength.
The captain isn't indifferent about his Bears falling out in the quarterfinals of the Erste Bank Ice Hockey League, but he always sees the brighter side of the medal and says...
- The goal is the same every season; to win the title, and it can't be anything else. There's no sense in preparing yourself thinking "let's play the season and see what happens". You have to build the team that way from the start of preparations because the whole point of hockey is to win the title. Maybe in the end you don't achieve that goal, but all of the little things you achieve along the way are important and we have to be proud of them. This was an incredible season. A season full of ups and downs, but you expect that throughout it. We had some difficult periods, but we managed to get through them together. Unfortunately, we lost in the quarterfinals to a team that scraped their way into the top eight teams. In this series we felt like we were trying to climb the highest mountain peak, and not as though we were playing hokey. There were so many moments when we could have just thrown our hands in the air; we were injured, sick, and tired, but we didn't give up. It's never easy when you lose three times in overtime in a series. It's hard to accept that. But, the series didn't go in just one direction, and we could have made it further. Unfortunately they got lucky shots when they needed them most. Sometimes a team, the players that stay in a club, after falling out are even hungrier for victory in the next season.
If you were to rate these past four seasons in the Erste Bank Ice Hockey League, which one would you say was the most successful?
- If I compare all four seasons, the club's organization, the coaching staff, and players, a lot of things have sat in place. The club's started to understand how to build a successful team. You can't have 22 players who are always going to score, you can't have 22 players who are going to be defensive offense, but you have to have a mix on the team. That means players who score, and players with character, who can fill different positions if it's necessary. This season we had a good lineup, especially the core team. The boys showed a lot of character, they went through a lot, they played sick and injured... because of all of that I'd say that this was our most successful season.
Kenny MacAulay, Andy Sertich, Robert Kristan and yourself have been here since the beginning, you have been fighting for the Medveščak logo and trying to bring the title to Zagreb since the first season. Does falling out in the quarterfinals affect you more than players that joined later?
- I think that we all feel the same. We've all played on a lot of teams, in different leagues, and we've already been in a position like this. We know it's not easy to put a team together and win the championship because there are so many factors that impact that. It's true, I can't not be disappointed because in these four seasons we haven't managed to win the title, but when you know you're on the right track, you want to come back in the next season and work on details that you didn't do right this time around, and try to achieve that main goal again. I'd like more than anything to end my career here with a cup in my hands, and not just for myself but for the fans too.
The defence players had a big job in the past two months considering Geoff Waugh's injury. In January he was out of the game because of a concussion, and he missed the playoffs because of an injury on his knee ligament.
- Losing a player of Geoff's calibre always affects a team and hurts it. We didn't miss Geoff just on the ice, but in the locker room too. Instead of him, others had to pull harder, and some even had the opportunity to show themselves more. Domen Vedlin played really well, as did Dennis Bozic. Andy, Saša, Kenny, and I had to play more minutes. When you play like that for a week or two, it's not a problem, but for a month... It's especially hard in the playoffs because you play more physical hockey and the games are tense. All of that impacts your body and maybe we were, as the defensive core, left without gas in the last two games. That's a problem that we have to work on in the future. We have to have more young players like the Austrian teams do. We are still easily letting more young Croatian players into the game and developing them. We have to have more of them in situations like these injuries, so that they can jump in and fill the position that is needed of them.
Why are we so slow at introducing young players?
- Because hockey was on the backburner for so long, and for development there needs to be at least ten years. Plus when you add the fact that there are only two rinks in town, Dom Sportova and Velesajam, which you only use for two hours a day, plus Šalata which is only open for a part of the season and can be practiced at only when the weather is good, there are of course, along with three hockey teams, and then skaters recreational use, everyone wants a piece of that ice. It's hard for coaches to develop players in those conditions. One of the most important things are games, which we don't have as many of as the Austrians, Hungarians, and Slovenians. A positive thing is that the Erste Bank Young Stars League has been developed, which will be a big help to the young ones. I know that most people are already familiar with the problems with Croatian hockey, and I know that at times it seems like no progress is being made forward, but in these four seasons that I've been here, I can see that things are moving forward, and not just in Medveščak, but also in other clubs. I see that on my son, who trains here throughout the season.
How much has the club as an organization improved over the past four seasons?
- I'm sure that now, looking back, some things would have been done differently. But if you look at how the club has been operating professionally over these past four seasons, in the past two preliminary parts of the season we finished in second place, and in this one we were in first place for a while. There are teams that don't achieve that in ten years, and sometimes they don't even make it to the playoffs. In the first season we could have been in the same position as Dornbirn or Innsbruck, but the club brought in real players who were very successful. This season the juniors were able to play in the Erste Bank Young Stars League. Entire families can come to Medveščak games with their kids, you don't have to be worried that someone will light a torch or start a fight. Of course there are the sponsors, the fans, the games in the Pula and Zagreb Arenas and at Šalata, and people are talking about the KHL more and more. I think it's no small thing that the second best hockey league in the world wants to have a team from Zagreb. When you consider all of that, it's incredible what the club has achieved in these four seasons, and with only the personal money, and will and investment from Damir Gojanović, the club's president.
In past seasons you've had troubles with health either before or during the playoffs. In the 2010/2011 season, you spent several days in the hospital with an I.V., but as soon as you got the release letter, regardless of being tired and having shed weight, you came to practice and played key games, and pushed the boys into the playoffs. This season you finally entered the playoffs in good health.
- Considering my chronic illness, I never know what will trigger to worsen the condition of my health, or when it will strike. This season I had a whole new approach. I decided to listen to my body. When I feel that I need rest, I rest, I make sure to drink enough liquids, on my free days I don't do things I maybe would have done when I was 25 or 26, and instead of going to the gym and riding a bike, I go for walks with my family. I'm the type of player who loves to practice, I love the last practice and skating on the ice before the game, I never missed out on those. But, I talked to the coaches and together we decided that maybe I shouldn't force myself, that maybe it's better to skip out on a practice, get some quality rest, and prepare for the game. I did that a couple of times, and I have to say that I was more fresh throughout the whole season. That was really a positive step for myself.
So that's the secret of our captain's good form, despite having 37 years behind him?
- You could say that. Thirty seven isn't that many years, but in those years you have to start listening to your body. I'm trying to be as rested as I can mentally and physically to make it through the entire season, and I stick to my diet. After my surgery, I learned about what I can eat, and what I can't. In the past two years I've paid close attention to how my body reacts to which foods.
When travelling do you find it easy to maintain your diet, or do you bring food with you?
- There's usually food I can eat on the menu, so I don't really bring anything in particular with me. When travelling we always have the standard, boring (smile) hockey food like pasta and chicken. So nothing crazy, just light, easily digestible food.
The season is over. How are you going to spend your summer holidays? Are you heading to Canada soon or are you going to stay in Zagreb a little while?
- We plan on staying until probably the beginning of May. I want to see the Croatian representation in the World Championship, and to spend some time with Joel Prpic and John Hećimović who are going to come and play. But the weather is getting nicer here, and it's still cold in Sarnia and I'd have to put on my winter coat and boots. I'm not too excited about that (laugh).
The HSHL was thinking about including you in the checkered jersey as part of the Croatian representation at this World Championship. Where did things go off?
- I've been told that my citizenship will not be ready by September, so nothing of this championship, but maybe I'll play in the next one. I'd like that. That would be another nice line in my CV, and it would be cool to say that I played in the Canadian and Croatian selection.
What are your plans with Medveščaka for 2013./2014.?
- Everything is still open since we still don't know if the team will play in the Erste Bank Ice Hockey Leagues or in the KHL next year. When we find out, I'm going to sit with the club's board of experts and together we're going to decide what and how to proceed, and what are their plans for the future. If it agrees with the club's plans, I'd gladly come back and play another season. As far as my physical condition is concerned, I'm sure I could play another one.
Will the club's joining the KHL affect your decision?
- I haven't thought too much about what would happen if we join the KHL. That's a completely different level of hockey which changes everything, even practices over the summer and preparations. If that happens, I'd definitely have to think about it a bit longer than I would if we stayed in the Erste Bank Ice Hockey League. The KHL would be a drastic change near the end of my career, and that's intriguing, but realistically, I'd have to seriously think about it.
However things work out, and whatever they decide, surely you will never forget the first phone calls from Medveščak at the beginning of summer 2009.
- That's unforgettable. I'd like to have seen my face when they asked if I'd like to play in Croatia. I will never forget the call from Markoantonio Belinić in which he tried to enchant us with Croatia and Zagreb. At one point in that conversation he told us that you can buy Heinz ketchup in Croatia. I replied "Marko, what does Heinz ketchup have to do with hockey? But I'm glad you let us know that we can get Heinz ketchup in Croatia" (smile). All of those charming details that have happened over the past four seasons, the people I've met at work, and in the school that my children attend, the players that will remain life-long friends, the coaches, the first season, the first game at Šalata, the first games in Arena Zagreb, followed by the ones in the Pula Arena, all the trips with the team... We even had a fire in the locker room. Man, so many things happened that always bring a smile to my face. If in 20 years we have a reunion with all the players who played here in the past four seasons, I'm sure that we would spend the whole night laughing and talking about those incredible moments that we experienced here. I doubt any of them forgot them.
Medveščak and Zagreb are the only places you've stayed for so long in your entire career. Are there any particular reasons for that?
- A big part of that is the club, which has always been really good toward me, my family loves it here, and I've gotten to the point where I don't feel like moving somewhere new every season. Medveščak and Zagreb are and excellent place to finish my career. I came here to help hockey become a popular and respected sport. You need time for that, but we're on the right path. I've managed to inspire some people to try and find a way to improve the state of Croatian hockey, and also kids to find their way. When you see kids at their practices in Medveščak jerseys, when you see the names of my current and former players on their backs, you can't not enjoy that moment. You never forget things like that.
Do you feel different now when you enter the Ice Hall than you did in the first season, and has the experience and atmosphere of games changed?
- Throughout the seasons you start to meet other teams and their players, the league, you start to develop sports rivalries with some teams like for example Graz, Klagenfurt, Red Bull. The fans feel that too, and they express that in the atmosphere in Dom Sportova. Of course, always in the rare dignified way in which Medveščak fans are know in the league and in the whole world. The cheering was unbelievable from the first season. I'm glad that the fans are starting to understand the game more, that they are getting attached to players and getting to know them better. It was exactly them that gave us strength in the quarterfinals. They were so proud that we came back from Salzburg having tied the series 2-2. And when we lost that last game in Salzburg, they waited for us in front of Dom Sportova even though we got back to Zagreb at 5 AM just to greet us with an applause and to thank us for an exciting season. We should actually thank them for the support they've given us. That was a special moment, but also a difficult one because we couldn't help but feel that we had let them down by not making it to the semi-finals.
If you were a reporter, what question would you ask yourself?
- I don't know. Maybe people would like to know how boring it is to sit on a bus and drive for 9 or 10 hours to Dornbirn. Ha ha. And how we kill that time on the bus and in hotels until the game. My wife always says "oh, you're going on a trip, I'm sure you're going to get a lot of rest". I'd love to switch places with her. I have to steal my son's iPad so I can watch movies, listen to music, and read books for those ten hours because otherwise you just sit there and stare out the window. Then on top of that someone puts on a movie that's too loud and that you've seen five times already. Then you get to the hotel room and there's lots to see - a miniature TV. In the end you have nothing left to do beside go to sleep, and when you look back on the day you feel like you've done absolutely nothing. Believe me, I'd gladly change places with anyone who would sit those nine or ten hours on the bus instead of me (smile).
You mentioned that you like to read. Clearly Medveščak's locker room is full of bookworms.
- Andy and Kenny love books, but there are a whole bunch of them that read a lot. Usually we recommend each other books. The last things I read were Inside: One Man's Experience of Prison, and Steve Jobs. Sometimes I read some challenging books, and sometimes some just to take my mind off things. Inside is definitely the best one I've read this year.
So there's a 'book club' in the Bear den?
- Sometimes, yeah, we talk about books we've read, but we talk more about TV shows and movies. Most of the players watch Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Homeland. They're pretty worked up about those shows. Sometimes it happens that someone comes to practice and asks whether we've seen the last episode of a show, and then you hear someone from the other end of the locker room yell "don't say what happens, I haven't seen it yet!".
O. K., we know what kinds of books and movies you like. What about music?
- I like rock, particularly bands like The Shit Dogs, Big Sugar, The Tragically Hip, and The Black Crowes, but country is definitely my favourite. If I was the D.J. in the locker room in the morning, I'd usually put on some country. Of course, there would be some disagreements, ha ha, because even though a lot of them listen to it, we don't all listen to the same bands. Sometimes you'd hear Croatian songs that the Croatian and Slovenian guys would put on. But I think the guys were least happy when Ouzy would play something because few people want to listen to techno at nine in the morning. All in all, we always argued about who will pick what to play.
Does country music make you want to dance?
- Um, no, no. No more line dancing for me (smile). I did before, but not anymore.
And for the end, who is going to win the Erste Bank Ice Hockey League title?
- I hope it's Vienna, because I know some of the players, having played with Benoit Gratton and Francois Fortier in Hamburg, they have a solid team, they attack well and with a lot of heart. They're in first place for almost the whole season and they deserve the title. I think they're going to battle it out for the title against Klagenfurt in the finals.