The idea of Ralph Krueger sitting next to an unsuspecting Buffalo Sabres fan in a bar seems, at first glance, remarkable. But it also seems — for anyone who got an up-close view into Krueger as a coach and person while he guided Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 — completely consistent with who he is, with the dedication he brings to every job he takes on, with his curiosity and quest for knowledge.
It seems, in a word, perfect.
So it’s easy to picture Krueger, who was hired as coach of the Sabres on Wednesday, sidling up to multiple bars as he walked around Buffalo, probing fans for candid answers, ones that he couldn’t get from the Sabres ownership or management. The truth, as they saw it.
“I was able to tap in,” Krueger said on a conference call Wednesday. “I watched two NHL playoff games a few weeks ago and I changed bars every period, so I didn’t stay too long. But it was quite interesting. I’d sit beside Sabre fans and have conversations that I won’t be able to have with them now, but it was very enlightening.
“I certainly could feel the spirit of the city.”
It helped Krueger feel comfortable, both with the position he’ll be in as the coach of a team with a demanding fan base, and as a resident of a smaller city with only one other professional team — the NFL’s Buffalo Bills — diverting attention from the Sabres and their recent lack of success.
But if anyone is not going to be intimidated by that, it’s Krueger.
Krueger, who for the past five years has been the chairman of Southampton Football Club of the English Premier League, has shown over and over that he is willing to take on uncomfortable situations, unfamiliar tasks, and unenviable positions. He moved from the NHL to the EPL without blinking. He created an entire federation’s-worth of infrastructure behind a team that no one believed could win at the World Cup, bringing the stunningly good Team Europe to the final against Team Canada.
And there, he rediscovered his love of coaching, something that was abundantly evident to anyone who was around him at the time, including his family.
“That definitely confirmed that in my heart of hearts I’m a coach,” Krueger said. “My kids have been telling me ever since that that’s the happiest I’ve looked in the last six years was when I was coaching hockey at the World Cup.”
He had taken a group of players from all across Europe, players who had never played together and never been on the same side in an international tournament, and made them believe in themselves and each other, made them believe they could be building something that mattered.
After that experience, perhaps taking on the challenge of the Sabres, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07, should be easy.
“It also confirmed the way I’d like to operate as a coach in the National Hockey League,” said Krueger, who coached the Edmonton Oilers to a 19-22-7 record during the shortened 2012-2013 season. “I think when I was in Edmonton, I was still searching for the proper style and it was an opportunity at the highest level against the best players in the world to test a system of play which will be the core of what we’ll be implementing here.
“I’ve seen no reasons to adjust that core plan of wanting to have a team that is aggressive in regards to the way it pressures the puck and uses speed in the attack as a balance to that.”
It’s something he will continue to refine over the next four months, as he heads toward training camp and the start of next season. He’ll have conversations with 22-year-old center Jack Eichel and 23-year-old center Sam Reinhart at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia next week.
He knows how hard this will be. The Sabres were first in the NHL with a record of 17-6-2 on Nov. 27 under second-year coach Phil Housley, but went 16-33-8 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season. Housley was fired April 7.
But Krueger — a man who values varied experiences and new challenges, who has participated in the World Economic Forum and been a motivational speaker — is hardly daunted by just about any challenge. He has proven that, beyond a doubt.
Whether he wins in Buffalo remains to be seen. Krueger, though, will not be cowed by what is in front of him. He clearly itches to return to coaching and, even if his research methods are a bit — say — unconventional, he is willing to put in the time and effort to make the most educated decision for himself, his family, and now, the Sabres.
“I could just feel the coaching magnet calling me back,” he said, of his conversations with general manager Jason Botterill.
He could feel it, too, from Buffalo.
“We love the type of city that Buffalo is,” Krueger said, of himself and his wife. “It’s very real. There’s a warmth there and a passion for, especially, hockey. That is important to me. There’s a history there that I as a coach have always found important to be working in an environment where there’s a responsibility. We matter in Buffalo, and that matters to me as a head coach.
“I want that pressure. I want that responsibility. … We’re an important part of what Buffalo is all about.”
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