BUFFALO — Ralph Krueger was considered by many as an out-of-box hire to coach the perennially under-achieving Buffalo Sabres.
The Manitoba product, who split his formative years between Winnipeg and Steinbach, wasn’t exactly a fresh face when he was introduced last May as the 19th coach in franchise history, yet he was no retread, either.
Krueger’s resume is unique, to say the least, but what jumps off the page is his remarkable success coaching international hockey, gaining a reputation as an excellent communicator, teacher and team builder.
Three-quarters of the way through the 2019-20 season in Buffalo, the reviews have been mixed — although impressive back-to-back afternoon victories this weekend should please a loyal but impatient fan base. In fact, the Sabres are 6-2-1 in their last nine outings.
Blessed with a small crop of brilliant young players — headlined by centre Jack Eichel and blue-liner Rasmus Dahlin — Buffalo is eight points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 20 contest remaining in the 2019-20. The Sabres are looking for their first post-season appearance since the 2010-11.
Krueger, 60, firmly believes he’s the right man for the job at this time and place.
“It just fits like a glove here. Nothing feels forced. It’s a big challenge but I felt ready then and feel even more prepared now that I’m well in it, for sure,” he told the Free Press over the weekend. “I’m really enjoying working with the players that we have. We have an excellent group of core players. I don’t think we’re missing too many pieces to take the next step.
“We’ve got really good buy-in here and no one’s giving up on the season or anything. It’s a really good spirit. It’s been an up-and-down season, but overall we’re seeing a continuous line of growth through all those experiences.”
The one thing Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill insisted he was seeking with the hire of Krueger was stability behind the bench. Buffalo had run through a fistful of coaches, including Phil Housley — bench boss No. 5 in nine years — who was fired a month before Krueger came aboard.
The Sabres’ season has been a succession of hills and valleys, beginning 9-2-1 and then slumping to 1-7-2 before going 19-16-5, including a tidy 2-1 triumph over the Jets.
The culture of the dressing room required a total makeover and, as the adage goes Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“We feel there’s growth in the group and we do feel the young players have really embraced the on- and off-ice culture that we need, so there’s a lot more positivity than our results show,” said Krueger, who attended St. John’s Ravenscourt school and, admittedly, spent more time at Dutton Memorial Arena playing shinny than cracking the books.
This isn’t Krueger’s first foray into NHL coaching. He was an associate under Tom Renney in Edmonton for two seasons before assuming the helm for the lockout-shortened 2012-13, only to be shown the door after the Oilers finished 19-22-7 to miss the playoffs.
Even before his time in the Alberta capital, Krueger worked as a consultant to Paul Maurice for a couple of seasons when the current Winnipeg Jets coach was behind the bench for a second stint with the Carolina Hurricanes (2008-10).
They were also shoulder to shoulder building and coaching Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. The two have remained exceptionally close, maintaining regular communication during the hockey season and enjoying plenty of summer days together at their family cottages at Lake of the Woods.
Maurice said his Krueger’s curiosity about life, a drive to improve the quality of everyone and everything around him and his love of teaching makes him one of the league’s most relevant coaches.
“I can sit down with him and just listen to him talk for hours. He’s had an incredibly unusual life path, and his experiences have made him such a positive person. He connects with people almost immediately,” said Maurice.
“His life in hockey would be an extension of that. He got into the coaching and studied the game inside and out. He has that strong European experience, he’s been in the NHL, he’s learned some things and now he’s back. So, he has this really great depth and breadth to understanding the game and trying new things.”
Krueger coached Switzerland’s national team to Olympic appearances in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and was part of several world championships. He was also chairman of historic Southampton F.C. in the English Premiere soccer league, has guest-lectured on leadership training and even wrote a book.
He racked up points during a decade-long playing career in Germany but got a taste of coaching in Austria in 1991 and was hooked, he said.
“It was so weird. It was a life but it never consumed nearly as much as when I got into coaching, which I find has been all consuming. Other than my time in Southampton, I’ve spent 27 years of head coaching, more international, with the 12 international tournaments, four Olympics and the World Cup, it’s been different,” said Krueger.
“But the NHL is a very nice place to be right now and I’m just really proud and pleased.”
Krueger has been married to his wife, Glenda, for nearly 35 years. The couple has two children, Justin, 33, and Geena, 33, and two grand-daughters.
Getting fired by the Oilers didn’t leave him a little gunshy about another opportunity.
“I wouldn’t call it frightening. I had a lot of respect for the challenge.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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