Alan Letang still remembers the phone call.
It was 2009, and his career had already spanned 14 seasons of professional hockey in North America and Europe.
The voice on the other end of the line asked him a question.
“There’s a team in Croatia… would you like to join,” Letang recalled after responding. I was like, “What? Croatia? What does that mean? Is my career over?” »
“I took a chance,” he added.
This stop, one of many that punctuated Letang’s career in the sport, agreeing to join Medvescak of Zagreb, in the KHL, eventually propelled him to the forefront – behind the team bench Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
“A great experience,” he said of his stay in the Croatian capital. I wouldn’t change anything if I had to do it again. The people, the country, the team, the way I was welcomed. All. »
The Renfrew, Ontario native spent five seasons on the Croatian team’s blue line before becoming an assistant coach in 2014.
Letang eventually returned to Canada with his wife, Krystie, and their two young children after accepting a position with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.
He was promoted to head coach in 2019, and served in the same role with the Sarnia Sting in 2021. During this time, Letang became involved with Hockey Canada.
He was a sort of supervisor in the press box – the one who relays information to the coaches behind the bench – during the country’s winning gold at the 2020 and 2023 World Cups. He was also the head coach of the Canadian under-18 team that won the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last summer.
The triumph paved the way for the job he will take in Gothenburg, Sweden, starting Tuesday in the prestigious tournament reserved for the best players under the age of 20 on the planet.
“A very good coach, and an even better person,” said Peter Anholt of Hockey Canada. The decision was very easy to make. »
The 48-year-old’s goal will be to lead Canada – which will be without many highly talented NHL standouts, including Connor Bedard – to a third consecutive world title, a feat that he will attempt to accomplish for the first time since 2009.
“The Canadians play in a special way,” Letang said. It is our depth, and our talent, that sets us apart from others. You have to build relationships with the players, then add your personal touch to the “Canadian way” of doing things.
“Everyone has a role to play and responsibilities. It’s important that each of us accepts this contract,” he continued.
As was the case for Letang when he found himself in Zagreb almost 14 years ago. He sacrificed everything.
“Both of my children grew up speaking some Croatian,” Letang said. I learned some basic phrases – how to drink and order a few beers. »
He also made sure that the World Juniors were broadcast on the TV at the bar he frequented every Christmas, mainly to help homesick Canadians feel a little more at home during the holidays.
“We loved shouting and cheering for the team,” Letang recalled. There were Europeans on the team, as well as some North Americans.
“A healthy rivalry,” he said.
And fans of the Zagreb club, if they decide to watch the tournament this year, will be able to see a familiar face behind the Canadian bench on Boxing Day.