March 1st, 2024

From Renfrew to Zagreb: Alan Letang’s journey to coaching Canada at the world juniors

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 21, 2023.

Canada's head coach Alan Letang runs a practice during the Canadian World Junior team selection camp in Oakville, Ont., on Monday, December 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Alan Letang remembers the phone call.

It was 2009 and his career had already included 14 seasons playing professional hockey in North America and Europe.

The voice on the other end of the line posed a question.

“There’s a team in Croatia “¦ would you consider going?” Letang recalled hearing after he answered. “I was like, ‘What? Croatia? What are we thinking here? Is this the end of the road for me?’

“I took a leap of faith.”

One of many stops on Letang’s winding path through the sport, the decision to join Zagreb Medvescak would eventually lead him to a place on centre stage – coaching Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

“Awesome experience,” he said of playing in Croatia’s capital. “I wouldn’t change a thing. The people, the country, the team, the way I was embraced. Everything.”

The Renfrew, Ont., native spent five campaigns patrolling the club’s blue line before becoming an assistant coach in 2014.

Letang eventually headed home to Canada with his wife, Krystie, and their two children for a job with the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack.

He was promoted to head coach in 2019 and took the same role with the Sarnia Sting in 2021. During that time, Letang got involved with Hockey Canada.

He was the so-called “eye in the sky” – relaying information from the press box – when the country won gold at the 2020 and 2023 world juniors, and was head coach for last summer’s podium-topping performance at the under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

That paved the way for the 48-year-old Letang to occupy the big chair in Gothenburg, Sweden, when the annual under-20 tournament opens Tuesday.

“Great coach, even better person,” Hockey Canada’s Peter Anholt said. “The decision was pretty easy.”

Letang’s hockey story started as a kid just west of Ottawa, where he fell in love with the game as a smooth-skating defenceman.

“Always calm under pressure,” said Adam Tate, a teammate with the Ottawa Valley Titans. “And there’s no bigger high-pressure job than the world juniors.”

Brent Carty coached that group of teenagers more than three decades ago. Letang’s approach and demeanour always stood out.

“Doesn’t surprise me Alan did a lot with hockey,” he said. “He was serious about being the best he could be in the sport.”

Letang played in the OHL and was an eighth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. A brief NHL taste saw him suit up 14 times with the Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames and New York Islanders between 1999 and 2003.

The 2004-05 NHL lockout opened the door to Europe, where Letang would play in Germany, Austria and finally, Croatia.

“Best years of my of my career,” he said of that final stop. “Pretty special.”

Letang said the atmosphere in Zagreb was often like a raucous soccer match between bitter rivals.

“A smaller scale,” he said. “But they were diehards.”

The veteran of 19 pro seasons with 15 teams said his time in Europe helped him see the game from different perspectives.

“Huge impact,” he said. “I’ve pieced together the thought process and the mentality I have as a coach. I’m a collaborator.

“Nothing’s off the table.”

That collaboration is something Letang, who described getting the world junior job as a “huge shock,” has seen emphasized with Hockey Canada.

“Everyone stays in their lane,” he said. “But if something else is needed, everyone’s ready to do the heavy lifting. If there’s a bag that needs to be put on the bus, someone grabs it. It’s a huge family.

“Whatever we need to meet our goal.”

That goal is to lead Canada – minus a boatload of NHL talent, including Connor Bedard – to the country’s first three-peat since 2009.

“Canadians have a way of playing,” Letang said. “It’s our depth and our skill that eventually separate us. It’s about building those relationships with the players, and then putting your own spin on ‘The Canadian Way.’

“Everyone’s gonna have a role and responsibility. It’s important you’re willing to accept it.”

Not unlike Letang when he got to Zagreb some 14 years ago. He was all-in.

“Both my kids grew up speaking a little bit of Croatian,” Letang said. “I learned the essential words – how to swear and order a few beers.”

He also made sure the world juniors were on TV at a local bar every Christmas, especially for the Canadians missing home over the holidays.

“We’d hoot and holler,” Letang said. “We had some Europeans on the team, some North Americans.

“Friendly rivalry.”

Fans in Zagreb, if they happen to tune in this year, will see a familiar face on the screen come Boxing Day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2023.

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