QUEBEC CITY–Ralph Krueger’s reputation as the hockey world’s most interesting man is already well-established.
Most old-school hockey executives and coaches have been emerged with varying imperfections from the same mould and, if they’re anything, they’re colourful but not complicated. Most new-school execs are about as colourful as the spreadsheets they clutch and complicated as the average accountant.
Krueger, the head coach of Team Europe in the World Cup, is anything but dull and anything and can probably do the analytics work-ups without benefit of the latest software.
Of course There have been guys who didn’t fit the mould before. Maybe the closest was Mike Smith with his PhD and a stack of books he had written over the years. And like Krueger, Smith was an internationalist of sort—in fact, the criticism of the American-born Smith focused on his love of all things to do with European hockey and, in particular, favouring Russian players to the seeming exclusion of North Americans.
Krueger isn’t Mike Smith. Smith gave off a whiff that goes with a sense of superiority and you had a sense that his comfort zone was any empty room. In contrast, Krueger seems to be an utterly social animal, a guy who doesn’t take questions so much as hold court, as he has done through two days of practice at the Centre Videotron.
Somehow Krueger seems a perfect fit as the coach of Team Europe: a guy who is the ultimate global citizen. He was born in Winnipeg and coached the Swiss national team for 13 years. He has written a self-help book in German. Yes, his season at the helm of the Edmonton Oilers was a disappointment but, then again, that’s like faulting a guy for calling in sick during a contagion.
Krueger said he’d leave it “to others to judge” about his being a perfect fit and really it’s a matter that can only be judged by his team’s performance this month. That’s not to say that he lacks confidence.
“I feel very comfortable in this role,” he said. “I know all these players. I’ve watched them all from their under 18s through to today. I understand how every player was able to find a path to the NHL. They were drafted later than they should have been. They were outsiders. They went into every tournament as outsiders.”
Of course, Krueger comes to the World Cup as an outsider himself, at least in the sense that he’s out of hockey for the moment. Not to say he’s out of work, however. After working for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, Krueger landed a job with Southampton, a team in the Premiership.
“The reason for that is my hunger to grow as a leader,” he said. “After 25 years of head coaching it was another level [but] it happened to be football-slash-soccer. It was a really difficult challenge, just as this is. I had no goal to get into football. I just like to do difficult projects.”
You could categorize the building of Team Europe on the fly for the World Cup of Hockey as a “difficult project” but Krueger maintains that Southampton has prepared him for the challenge.
“We have 15 different nationalities [in Southampton],” he said. “We’re dealing with the globe in Southampton. We have a Japanese player, a South American, an African—we hit every continent. The advantage we have [compared to Southampton] is that everyone in the [Team Europe] dressing room speaks perfect English.
“It’s ironic: it’s the English that’s binding [Team Europe]. This wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. There would have been a language barrier. We have a communications foundation.”
And it’s absolutely true. When Anze Kopitar was at the mic after being appointed as Team Europe’s captain, you would have thought he had been plucked off Manhattan Beach and not just represented his native Slovenia in Olympic qualifying games last week.
While they’re all holding passports of their respective nations, Team Europe’s players are effectively dual citizens of their countries of origin and the National Hockey League.
This weird conglomeration that is Team Europe might be a one-off or it might have another life in another tournament down the line. In fact what happens next with the World Cup is anyone’s guess, given that it’s contested at seemingly random intervals (1996, 2004, 2016).
Krueger has talked about “forging a team identity” this week. “We’re going for wins,” he said.
“We’re not waiting for others to fail and fall. We’d like to have an aggressive style with and without the puck. The coach’s job is to connect the players. That’s what we’re working on here, [to get] all these eight nations connecting on the ice.”
In coming days, hockey’s most interesting man emeritus has perhaps the game’s most interesting job.