BUFFALO — It’s no exaggeration to say Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is the most interesting man in hockey.
The Winnipeg native describes himself as a pure hockey player who is self-educated, but he has put together an interesting resumé in his 60 years.
Krueger went from being a high-scoring forward in the German hockey league to a successful coaching career with the Swiss national team.
In his spare time, he wrote a book on leadership that was a best-seller in Europe, advised top corporations on leadership, had a seat at the World Economic Forum in Davos and served as the chairman of Southampton FC in soccer’s English Premier League.
The idea of leadership has consumed Krueger since he was a youngster. He said St. John’s Ravenscourt, a prestigious private school in Winnipeg, had a profound influence on his life and he began to think about leadership when he was the head boy in Grade 7.
“When I look back on my life, that was when I felt the urge to be a leader,” said Krueger. “I was never really happy as a player but the first day I coached, when I was 29, 30, that was when I was the happiest man on the planet and I knew that was my calling.
“One of the abilities I have is to process what it takes for a team to evolve, to create the harmony, to bring together all these diverse cultures we have in the NHL to get them to work together,” said Krueger. “It’s like an experiment and hockey is the most beautiful platform for me.”
Krueger was behind the bench for 18 world championship and Olympic tournaments with the Swiss national team. He led the Swiss to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic and a 2-0 win over Canada at the 2006 Olympics. At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the Swiss took gold medallist Canada to a shootout before losing 3-2
His experience gave him an understanding of different hockey styles and cultures and it helps him in Buffalo, where he has players from six countries.
“Every country in Europe has its own personality, the two in North America — Canada and the U.S. — have different personalities and you can see it in the way they play,” said Krueger. “It helps me that I can recognize those differences and then bring them into the team. The Swedish culture is a defensively-based, sacrificial kind of game. The Swedes play the most controlled hockey in Europe and the Finns are more open, run-and-gun. The Russians sit back and play 1-4 all the time and scoring chances are 10, 12 a game.”
Buffalo is Krueger’s second stop as an NHL coach. He coached the Edmonton Oilers in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and was fired after missing the playoffs. His contacts with the World Economic Forum led to an offer to serve as the chairman at Southampton, although he did maintain some hockey connections.
He served as a consultant to Team Canada in 2014 and Claude Julien, who was an assistant coach with the Canadian team, said Krueger offered valuable insights into the European teams. And Krueger’s experience made him a natural to coach Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup.
Krueger is happy to get another shot at the NHL, but said “it wasn’t a must.” When Jim Rutherford moved to Pittsburgh and became GM in 2014, he talked to Krueger and Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill made his first pitch in 2017.
“I’ve always been a project person and I didn’t feel it was right to leave Southampton,” said Krueger. “Once I had closure there, six or seven months ago, I knew this was my dream but I wasn’t sure anyone would give me the opportunity. I was grateful Buffalo came calling.”
Krueger has the Sabres off to a 2-0-1 start and Wednesday they’ll take on the Canadiens, the team Krueger cheered for as a youngster.
“They were by far my favourite hockey brand as a kid, but now I can’t love them as much, not tomorrow.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019