Team Canada has a secret coaching weapon

January 8, 2014, 2:49 PM

It was a job Ralph Krueger never would have thought to apply for because it had never before existed. But when Mike Babcock phoned him about an hour after he was fired by the Edmonton Oilers in June, it didn’t take much convincing to get Krueger to come work for Team Canada. Officially, he’s listed as a consultant to the Olympic coaching staff—but that doesn’t do much to explain some of the unique work Krueger has been doing in the leadup to Sochi.

His tasks have ranged from preparing video on all 11 potential opponents Canada could face to travelling around Europe trying to detect patterns in how other coaching staffs might gameplan against them. “When you watch Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czechs, Switzerland, Austria—everybody—in November and December, they really show you how they want to play at the Olympics even though the personnel was different,” Krueger says from his home in Switzerland. “It gives us quite a heads-up on what’s coming at us. Now when they plug in this personnel it will just raise the skill level and the ability of the group, but not necessarily the way they’re going to play as far as the system is concerned.”

Canada is more concerned than ever about how it makes the jump to the larger international ice at these Olympics and that’s why they’ve hired a European specialist. The gold in Vancouver was won on a typical North American sheet and the early word out of Russia is that the venue in Sochi has stretched the surface as wide as it is allowed under IIHF rules. Krueger is uniquely qualified to advise Babcock’s staff after serving 13 years as the Swiss national coach prior to taking a job as an assistant with the Oilers in 2010 (he was head coach for the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign before being replaced by Dallas Eakins). Born in Winnipeg and raised in Steinbach, Man., Krueger has spent most of his adult life around the European game, first as a player and then as a coach.

Among the highlights of his coaching career was Switzerland’s 2-0 upset victory over Canada at the 2006 Turin Games—one that sent Pat Quinn’s team to a disastrous seventh-place finish. Krueger believes that game provides a perfect example of what can go wrong for Canada on the international stage, something that has happened repeatedly in recent years at the world championship as well. He thinks it’s important for Canadian teams to keep the game moving fast between the faceoff dots and away from the extra ice near the boards.

If that doesn’t happen, it’s a recipe for disaster. “It’s important that we have a very Canadian game in our style, in the way we execute and make sure that we play to our strengths rather than getting caught up in playing in that extra ice and taking the game to the outside—as many of the European teams do,” says Krueger. “Just overall there’s more of a passive style of play over in Europe. You’ve got multiple countries sitting back and sitting back and not really creating much forecheck in their game.”

With the Olympic roster now finalized, the Canadian coaching staff is springing into action. Krueger flew to California on Wednesday and will join Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings for a three-game road trip through the state. The two men plan to fit in as much Olympic preparation as possible around those games. Krueger will then head to Calgary to finish up some scouting presentations with video manager Andrew Brewer before being the first member of the Canadian coaching staff to arrive in Sochi. He’ll handle many of the day-to-day logistics, which should ease the burden on assistants Ken Hitchcock (St. Louis), Lindy Ruff (Dallas) and Claude Julien (Boston) who will all be jumping in right out of hectic NHL schedules.

Babcock seems extremely pleased with the work Krueger has already put in on behalf of the coaches. Those men first met at the 2004 world championship and often found themselves jogging on adjacent treadmills in the same exercise room at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Now they are united in the goal of trying to bring another gold medal to Canada. “He’s lived over there, coached over there and understands the big ice,” says Babcock. “He’s been around way more Olympics than the rest of us…. He’s not working in the NHL this year—Hitch wasn’t last time—so they become a great resource for the head coach because they’re available to talk to you all the time and do the projects you don’t have time to do. He’s been fantastic.”

WINTER WONDERLAND

The scale of the NHL’s Winter Classic at the University of Michigan was so significant that the official attendance numbers are still being “assessed,” according to a spokesman for the Guinness Book of World Records.

Even though the league sold 105,491 tickets, there is some doubt about whether it actually set a new attendance record for hockey because of the heavy snowfall, poor driving conditions and long lines that are believed to have kept some fans from getting to the Big House. There was an adjudicator from Guinness on hand at the stadium to determine exactly how many people made it through the gates and certify the record—assuming the NHL was able to outdraw the 104,173 that attended a Michigan-Michigan State game in 2010. Whether that was accomplished or not, the NHL has already labeled the 2014 Winter Classic as its largest and most lucrative game ever.

The annual New Year’s Day event will be downsizing for the foreseeable future. The 2015 game is slated for Washington, D.C., and is expected to be played at the 42,000-seat Nationals Park, while the 2016 game remains up in the air. As Sportsnet first reported, the 2017 Winter Classic is being tabbed for Toronto at a revamped BMO Field, which would need to be expanded to a permanent capacity of 32,000 while leaving room to add another 8,000 temporary seats.

Interestingly, the NHL is now open to having Canadian teams participate in its signature event after staging all-American matchups for the first five. The appeal extends beyond the Leafs as well. “There are other great matchups that come to mind—Montreal/Boston would be one of them that we would think about,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins told me during a recent sit down.

A FEW MORE THINGS

Roughly 20 percent of NHLers will participate in the Sochi Olympics after exactly 150 were named to national-team rosters in recent days (compared with 48 from the Russian-based KHL). Four charter planes leaving from Newark and Atlanta Feb. 9 will take the NHL players and their families to the Games. For those interested in potential injury-replacement situations, it’s unlikely that anyone who takes one of those flights wouldn’t be registered for the Olympics—although federations officially have until Feb. 11 to make changes.

The construction of Team Canada is something that can be debated endlessly and, as executive director Steve Yzerman pointed out, “nobody’s wrong.” In speaking with a couple NHL executives and players, the biggest surprise omission for them was Claude Giroux, who has come on very strong after a miserable start. He is considered the most likely replacement for Steven Stamkos if the Lightning star can’t return from his broken leg in time. Canada’s first two games at the Olympics are against Norway and Austria, which feature just four NHLers between them, including Austrian winger Thomas Vanek of the New York Islanders. He shakes his head when asked for his impressions of Team Canada. “What a team,” Vanek says. “If you look at the guys they left off the roster I’m tempted to check into their history and see if there’s any Austrian background. We could get them a few passports.”

Canadian goalie Mike Smith might be the only Olympian who has ever passed through NHL waivers unclaimed, but what makes his story truly unique is that Yzerman was the one who demoted him to the American Hockey League after a stretch of bad play with Tampa during the 2010-11 season. At the time, Smith wondered if he’d ever be back in the NHL again. However, the 31-year-old revived his career after signing with Phoenix the following year and has no hard feelings about how things played out with his former GM. “I had some bumps along the road in Tampa and I don’t regret anything that ever happened to me,” Smith told me earlier this season. “I believe I became who I am today because of those situations.”

Those who found the third season of HBO’s 24/7 less compelling than the previous two might be interested to know that the cable network hopes to take the behind-the-scenes concept to another level by getting embedded during the playoffs. Word has it that some NHL teams have already been approached to gauge their interest and at least one is open to the idea. While it probably won’t be pulled together by this spring, according to a source, it would be can’t-miss TV for hockey fans if it ever happened.

Dion Phaneuf’s $49-million, seven-year extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs sparked plenty of reaction when it was announced last week—not all of it negative. I’m told that one rival GM phoned Leafs GM Dave Nonis the day after it was signed to inquire about whether he would be willing to trade a 28-year-old defenceman, who is now under contract through 2020-21. The answer, of course, was “no.”

One example of the collective bargaining agreement at work: The Dec. 23 St. Louis at Calgary game was pushed ahead by an hour to a 6 p.m. local start time after the NHL Players’ Association raised issue with the league. The problem? The Blues plane wouldn’t have landed home until after 2 a.m., which meant that Dec. 24 wouldn’t have counted as an official day off for St. Louis players under the terms of the CBA. Of course, all league activities were put on hold from Dec. 24-26.

STILL GOING

The accolades keep rolling in for the one-of-a-kind Jaromir Jagr, who was not only named to his fifth-straight Czech Olympic team this week, but also pulled alongside former Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux for seventh on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,723 points.

One smaller achievement remains on Thursday night. That will be Jagr’s 45th game this season for the New Jersey Devils, which triggers the final bonus in his 35-and-over contract and ensures he’ll earn all $4-million he signed for last summer. The Devils are more than happy to pay it with the 41-year-old Jagr leading the team in scoring. Here’s guessing we see No. 68 back for a 21st NHL season in 2014-15.

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