KLUB HOKEJA NA LEDUMEDVEŠČAKZAGREB
ICE HOCKEY CLUB
Medvescak’s Assistant Coach for the past two KHL seasons, a former Captain from the days of EBEL and the first KHL season, a player who was among the first to come in the Club when the project of returning ice hockey back to the city buzz began, Alan Letang will not be an active member of Medvescak’s team for the next season. He decided to move his family back to Canada and continue his professional career with the Owen Sound Attack team of the OHL.
Letang spent seven seasons with the club, going from the leader on the ice to the one who arranges plays from the bench. First handedly he witnessed numerous spectacles, and alongside the changes in his own career, he lived through some big changes for the club, especially when the team went from competing in EBEL to the KHL.
Zagreb became a home away from home to him and his family, and the memories both on and off the ice are too numerous to count. After reaching the decision to return to North America, he took one final glance on his time in Zagreb Den in front of whose fans he retired at the beginning of 2014/15 KHL season.
You've come a long way with Medvescak, you’ve been there from the very start of the story. Can you even remember what you thought when you were heading here?
It was strange circumstances that brought me in Zagreb. A friend who has taken a role in Zagreb to help develop this project, called me. I'm honored he thought of me as one of the first guys he wanted to bring over. At that point in my career, I was still considering playing somewhere in Europe and again, with the uncertainty, I didn't know a lot about Zagreb, Croatia, I knew nothing about Croatian hockey; it was a leap of faith. Based on Doug's character [Doug Bradley] and the way he explained the situation, he convinced me. I owe a lot to him for stepping outside the box and going above to bring me there. I had great conversations with Markoantonio Belinic before I came over, he explained a bunch of stuff.
At that point of my career a change was something worth doing and something totally new and Kristy and me decided to go ahead and do it. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because everything turned out really well. We got here, we did a great job that first year. All around it was just great, a great group of guys to play with, great ownership group, great people on the staff. It was a family atmosphere and it built a foundation for what was to come for the next seven years and what's still to come for everyone who want to be a part of it. The club got it the right way with the family atmosphere, taking care of people. And the fans are great, so it's a great situation for someone to go into.
A lot has changed for Medvescak and yourself over the years, glancing back, how would you rate the changes that happened?
All of it was a great experience for myself, my family, my kids. We discovered another place that we would probably never have visited, even if playing in Europe. So, that's a big positive and a wonderful experience and to stay there for seven years, one of the longest I've stayed anywhere in my career. From a family side, my kids got an amazing experience through school, they’ve learned the language, made a lot of friends. Together we've met a lot of nice people we keep in touch with and will be our friends forever. Everyone was just the friendliest of people.
From the hockey side, I think it speaks for itself. That first year, when we were starting, everything was such an unknown. No one knew what type of team we would have, we weren't expected to be a great team in the league, but we put in a lot of hard work and dedication and made the semifinals. And the team grew as a family. Those are the friendships you keep forever.
There are always ups and downs through the course of a hockey season and the course of a franchise. To be a part of the Arena games, outdoor games, Pula... there are only a certain few people who can say they've done that, were a part of something like this with hockey. Who knows when it will be done again, but we were the first to do all that. A lot of groundbreaking ideas and things were attempted with hockey in Croatia which was awesome.
Then we joined the KHL which was another big step, something that I would've never been a part of probably anywhere else. I was getting older in my career, but the club gave me the opportunity to play and end my career in a nice way - playing at the top level in Europe. I enjoyed it, it was exciting, I've met a lot of people.
My playing career was at an end, I said goodbye here, in front of our fans, it was a night full of emotions. And again the club gave me the opportunity to try and see if coaching is something I wanted to do, to see if I enjoyed it. I thank them for that immensely. When I think about it, there are a lot of situations I’m thankful for and I owe them quite a bit over the course of the last couple of seasons.
So, it's kind of worked out really well. Seven years ago, if someone had told me all this stuff would happen, I would've definitely not believed it. Croatia will always be a place I'll want to come back to at some point. Maybe for a visit, or… who knows how the hockey world comes in full circles. It was an unbelievable experience for seven seasons.
Your coaching career basically started in Zagreb. What was it like to experience the game from a different perspective for the first time?
It was a different dynamic, going from playing with a lot of those guys to standing behind the bench, trying to coach them and help them. I think the transition took a little while at first. You think you're involved in the game, but really you have little impact on the game from behind the bench. It's more about the trust you have in the players you put in those situations to do the job. At times you do get caught up in the games, watching and wanting to be out there. But as that first season went on, by the third month I was pretty comfortable. It set into my mind that this was probably what I was going to do.
It wasn't an easy transition, but transitioning here, in Medvescak, with people I knew, with friends I had on the team, it made it a little bit easier. I think, if I would've just retired and gone to a whole new team and started fresh, it would've been a real strange, strange situation. In that case you have only one or two people to interact with. In Medvescak I had a ton of people to talk to, to help me, people to bounce ideas off. That was the best situation to transition from player to coach.
What have the years in the KHL taught you?
It's a different style of game. You have the bigger ice in some rinks, the smaller in some. The Russian style of play is a lot of puck possession, a lot of traffic in the neutral zone. It gives you a total different side, a different view. The teams we've had, we played a very North American style – we wanted to forecheck, we wanted to pressure pucks and all that. It was a nice experience to watch both types of philosophies go back and forth in the game.
Also, just the experience of traveling, the time changes and still having work to do, having things ready to go. Sometimes it's 2 am in Zagreb, and in Russia it's 10 am and you're ready to make a presentation to the team and get them ready for the skate. It pushes your internal clock and boundaries. It pushes you to be professional, get the job done and move forward. As a coach you have to be energetic, you can't be tired and sleepy because the players will read off that. You have to bring your energy every day, so they see you're involved in it and part of it. That way, it was a great experience. I'll reflect back on it quite a bit over the course of my coaching career whether I'm riding a bus or flying from one coast to another in Canada.
It's also the language barrier in Russia; you have to find ways to adapt. But that’s positive because the more you can find ways to adapt, the better coach you're going to be in the future.
You were a part of the Croatian national team, both as a player, and as a coach in the last Championship. How did it make you feel?
It was great, I loved it. I played for Team Canada one year, and I enjoyed that. But after coming here and spending some years, seeing the way the fans enjoy hockey and embraced it and get behind the players and the team, it was something special to get an opportunity to play for them and help that team develop a little bit and help it move forward internationally. It was a great experience.
You go back to Lithuania where we played the Championship and you think there are not a whole lot of people involved, but then you hear guys talk how everyone's talking about it back home. And we had 25 people in the stands wearing the jerseys and waving the flag. That was something pretty special to see, that kind of support. We had a good tournament and we won the silver medal, a year after that we had the Championship at home.
It was a way to just give back. We strived for a medal in the tournament, but I think those kids took a huge step forward. We had a younger team, those kids are going to develop and I think the foundation of those kids and the way they are going to move forward knowing you can't just show up and go on the ice and play, you have to prepare; is very important. Being a part of it all was special, and I hope to be a part of it again. I don't want to close the book or turn the page on it because it was such a positive experience.
Out of all the years, the long bus rides, games, outdoor games, training camps, playoffs, holidays, celebrations ... what is the one thing that stands out?
There are so many things we did over the seven years. Probably the biggest feeling is just... the first time on the ice. That first game in Zagreb when we played Jesenice and won in overtime. It's the energy and the feeling you felt standing on the ice or playing in the game. There were so many times over the course of the seven years that you felt that same energy – maybe it was just a league game and we were down a goal and all of a sudden the whole rink starts chanting back and forth.
That's what I'll remember the most. The fans getting so involved in the game. You're out there playing, you're not supposed to hear a whole lot of what's going on around you, but you hear the fans singing and you're on the ice playing and getting goosebumps under your equipment because they are just so involved. Those moments come up quite a bit over the course of the seasons. That feeling is what I would take and will always remember. I don't know if I'll experience that feeling, those kind of goosebumps ever again. The same goes for the night I retired from playing in front of all those fans. My family was right there with me on the ice and we were surrounded by such strong emotions that can’t leave you calm, no matter how big a professional you are.
We did a lot of things off the ice, too. I’ve never seen such a desire to help those in need and to change something for the better in the community, as much as it was in Medvescak. In particular, I will be proud to have had an honor to be a sports spokesman for UNICEF in some campaigns for the youth. It is a great honor for an athlete, which rare few get to have, but also a great responsibility and experience I will carry throughout my life.
You kept mentioning fans, both as a player and coach, how important they are and how happy you are with their support. Do you have any last message for them?
I want to extend my wholehearted thank you for all the appreciation. It was amazing the way they supported the team and they way they supported me personally. You could see a few signs in the stands, and just coming out of the rink after the game and they being there wanting to talk. They take their weekends, their week days, they spend their money to come and watch you play and watch you be a part of the team – that's something that's pretty special. If I could personally thank each and every one of them, I would. I'll never forget their support, appreciation and everything they've done for me and my family and the team. I will miss those friendships and that feeling standing in Dom sportova.
The entire organizational and sports team of KHL Medvescak Zagreb thanks Alan Letang for all the years of effort, hard work, selfless support and great help on and off the ice. To him and his entire family we wish all the best from the bottom of our hearts. Thank You Captain!