NHLCA expedites new mentorship program to seize opportunity to inspire

Elliotte Friedman joins Lead Off and discusses how the NHL still wants to award a Stanley Cup this season and play a full 82 game schedule next season.

Ralph Krueger finds himself about as far from an NHL rink as he could be right now, sitting back home with family in Switzerland in a scene he describes as “ghost towns everywhere.”

“Everything is quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said over the phone Friday morning.

The head coach of the Buffalo Sabres has seen his life go from 100 miles an hour to a dead stop inside the last eight days, just like colleagues from across the hockey world and pretty much every other industry because of the spread of COVID-19.

Stuck in pause, there’s no clear answer about how best to use this abundance of quiet and free time.

That’s why Krueger is grateful for the accelerated launch of a new mentorship program by the NHL Coaches’ Association. It will see him deliver an online seminar to roughly 400 coaches from nine European hockey federations in the coming days — one of more than 20 such sessions slated to be conducted by NHL head, assistant and goalie coaches over the next six weeks.

“(It’s) good food for thought right now and a good distraction to what’s otherwise just a real quick disappearance of an extreme high intensity for all of us,” said Krueger. “Like you go from one day a week ago getting ready to play the Montreal Canadiens to just complete
stoppage.

“The shock and the withdrawal is quite high I think in everybody, but we all understand the necessity for it and the respect for the situation needs to be extremely high.”

The NHLCA’s mentorship program was originally going to launch in full next fall before getting pushed up because of this unexpected period of calm.

Most of those based in Europe that will be addressed by Krueger on Wednesday have already had their seasons cancelled outright because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Sabres coach figures it’ll be another few weeks before he learns if he’ll need to conduct a mini-training camp in anticipation of the season resuming or start prepping for player exit meetings.

“It’s just a lot of wait and see,” he said.

It’s created this opportunity for him to share a unique perspective from a coaching career that started in Austria and eventually took him to the NHL more than 20 years later. Krueger’s path included a long stint as Switzerland’s national team coach and five years as chairman of Southampton in the English Premier League, and has seen him become a member of the World Economic Forum and someone whose in demand for corporate speaking sessions on leadership.

The talk he’ll give to coaches next week is built around the idea of establishing a way of doing things in your own unique style. He’ll touch on the differences between the game in Europe and North America, and some other topics related to hockey tactics, but it’s
ultimately grounded in the importance of “permanently reaching for growth as a leader.”

There’s an opportunity, he believes, for his colleagues to seed some of that growth during this unique time.

“Hopefully, everybody kind of steps out of the challenges that we’re all in for an hour or so and it gets their mind going in another direction,” said Krueger. “This is also a time where there’s an opportunity for us to do things that can add value to our lives after we’re all done with spending most of our days indoors or at home.

“Sometimes in the difficult situations, you have a bigger opportunity with growth. Hopefully, I can inspire.”

A range of speakers and topics are included in the first major rollout of the NHLCA’s mentorship program. Sessions will be led by assistant coaches such as Kevin Dean of the Boston Bruins and Dan Muse of the Nashville Predators, and also a legendary retired member of the fraternity.

Ken Hitchcock is due to conduct a talk next Tuesday on “Effective communication and leadership in building a team.”

He doesn’t think he ever would have coached one NHL game — let alone the 1,598 on his resume — if not for the guidance he received from Dave King, Clare Drake and George Kingston in his younger years. This is an opportunity to give back.

“We’ve got to help the up-and-comers, we’ve got to give them everything we can so that when they get a job they feel like they’re ready, and they’re not surprised, and they’re comfortable in the intensity of the environment,” said Hitchcock. “This isn’t any secrets. This is lessons learned by years and years of trial and error.”

Hitchcock can identify with how strange this COVID-19 pause must be for coaches. He spent more than two decades behind an NHL bench culminating with last year’s stint in Edmonton, and took a significant step back while moving to Palm Springs, Calif., and assuming an advisory
role with the Oilers this season.

That took some adjustment.

“All-consuming means all-consuming. It does rule your life,” he said. “It will be a real challenge going from 100 to zero because your whole world changes, the people in your world change because they’re not used to having you around all the time. Getting used to it and getting comfortable in it does not happen overnight.”

Perhaps these new opportunities for professional growth can help fill the void.

What makes Kruger so enthused about this new mentorship initiative is the effect it can have at the grassroots level over time. He believes hockey has already developed more in terms of speed and skill than any sport he’s seen — a perspective bolstered by his hiatus from the game before getting hired by the Sabres last fall.

“The sky’s the limit. It’s so exciting what’s happening in the world of hockey,” said Krueger. “Of course not right now, in this terrible pause, but we’re all excited to get the world reactivated and energized again.

“The world is going to need some pep and some energy after this whole phase that we’re going through right now and I think sports is going to be an important vehicle to re-enter into normal society for everybody.”

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