Five Questions: Krueger on unorthodox path to NHL
Thursday, 12.13.2012 / 7:02 PM
NHL.com will periodically be doing a series called "Five Questions With …," a Q&A with some of the key movers and shakers in the game today aimed to gain some insight into their lives and careers.
This edition features Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger:
Most coaches follow a somewhat similar path to the area behind the bench in the National Hockey League.
Edmonton coach Ralph Krueger isn't like most coaches. He stopped dreaming about the NHL long before he finally got his chance to work here.
Instead of playing in North America and catching on with a franchise somewhere as an assistant coach, Krueger went to Germany as a 20-year-old and spent the next three decades in Europe learning the game, dissecting the sport as if it were a science project and developing an impeccable list of contacts, including the group of Oilers executives who eventually brought him to the NHL.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when Tom Renney, Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini hired Krueger to be an assistant under Renney, the only official ties he had to the NHL were the few players who played for him on the Swiss national team and the five years he served in a minor consulting role with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Krueger coached in Germany and Austria before landing in Switzerland as the coach of a national team ranked 15th in the world in 2000 by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Krueger had the Swiss up to No. 7 by the time he left in 2010.
He was promoted by the Oilers this summer to take over for Renney.
"People say, 'Well, you've waited 23 years for this,'" Krueger told NHL.com. "No, no, no. I didn't wait 23 years for this, it just evolved this way."
How did it evolve? Why did it take Krueger until he was 51 years old to break into the NHL? What does he think about the task in front of him now?
Here are Five Questions With … Ralph Krueger:
Coaching and playing in Germany, coaching in Austria and coaching in Switzerland with the national team gave you a lot of worldly experience before you got to the NHL. How has that worldly experience helped you since you got to the NHL a couple of years ago?
"That's one of the more interesting things about my career. I've had these clear decades of development, whether it was my 20s as a player in Germany and with the international team in Germany, in my 30s club coaching in Europe, which also took me onto the European stage with a team in Austria, and finally the last decade with the national team and starting to rub shoulders with NHL teams and coaches. This next decade has taken me to the head coaching situation in the National Hockey League.
"When I think of my past it's just so diverse that I have been exposed to every conceivable system of training and playing, and it's just a wonderful bank of information. Now, to find a way to bring not all, but what is relevant into the National Hockey League, is what I'm looking forward to as a head coach.
"And now I am a head coach accessing some of the greatest talents in the world, which is a different type of coaching completely than maximizing teams to their potential against opposition that are generally always stronger than you. It makes it really an exciting final step in my coaching career. This would be my fourth decade now in the game as a professional and I am very excited about it."
When you were going through each stop in each decade, was your end game this step, coaching in the NHL, or did it happen organically as you just went through the process?
"It most definitely happened organically. I can tell you initially when I became a coach I thought it was really important when people asked you what your goals were and what your long-term plans were, that I needed to answer that. But one of the things that I learned as a coach was having dreams and having long-term goals is important, but more important is putting your energy into the moment and being with the team you are with and not looking over the fence at other possibilities. That was something I learned quickly as a coach, so I did not sit there at any point and say, 'My goal is to be a head coach in the National Hockey League.' There was never a point where that had to happen.
"If it was going to happen, if that was where I was going to evolve to, it was because I trusted the process and I trusted that it would happen naturally. The only thing I put myself under pressure for was to find my potential as a coach, find out where I could go to. But I never said it had to be this (the NHL). It was just about trying to improve every day. That's what I became about, and in the last 15 years that is what I have tried to do without too much pressure on where it was going to take me. It was definitely organic.
"Thirteen years with the [Swiss] National team naturally brought me into contact and led me to the NHL as a coach although I hadn't had contact with the NHL before. That was my stepping stone, but it wasn't like I was coaching Switzerland in the Torino Olympics in 2006 and thinking that we needed to beat Canada so I had a chance. I wasn't thinking that way at all."
But you did win that game against Canada, 2-0, in the 2006 Olympics. Your Swiss team also earned respect in a 3-2 shootout loss to Canada more recently in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Did those games put you on the map?
"I have been a speaker at some international coaching events for 12 years now, so that brings you into the next level of coaching, onto the international stage. But if there was one game that connected me with North American hockey it would have been the win against Canada in 2006 in Torino. That would have been the one game.
"But there were other situations. There was the loss in the World Championships in St. Petersburg in 2000 to Canada, when we were winning until shortly before the end of the game and Ryan Smyth scores two goals to beat us. The coach that walked across the ice to congratulate me for the battle -- and I didn't like being congratulated for a loss -- was Tom Renney.
"There are so many moments of contact: Kevin Lowe running into me shortly after the Torino victory with Wayne Gretzky in tow, Steve Tambellini running into me on numerous occasions. I can think of so many times we had conversations and contact without this plan. It was very natural and very honest, my process with all of these people.
"Tom Renney called me after the 2010 Olympics and asked if I wanted to join him in Edmonton. Now I have this excellent working relationship with Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini and Craig MacTavish, who I had met in the catacombs of a Slovakian rink at about minus-20 degrees about five years ago.
"Everybody here in Edmonton, these are hockey people that I really connected with. You go across the world and you meet people, but then there are the ones you connect with and you work with. These are all people I really connected with and enjoyed running into. We would look for each other if we were in tournament situations. So there was a relationship-building going on there without any pressure, force or plan, and that's the interesting thing about where I am sitting today -- at my desk in Rexall Place."
Paul Maurice is now coaching in the KHL after a long time coaching in the NHL, and it's a culture shock for him because he has never coached in Russia and rarely ever went there. For you, despite the fact that you're a North American guy, born in Manitoba, the NHL was new to you in 2010 because you never played in the League or coached in the League. Did you experience culture shock at all when you got to the NHL in 2010?
"Absolutely not, because I watched every NHL game I could since I got into coaching. I've always been a student of the game and watching NHL playoffs has been something I have been doing for decades.
"It's actually interesting because when I was in my 30s and coaching in club hockey, I started watching a little bit of the NHL, but I really watched a lot of international hockey and went to all the tournaments. When I became the national coach in Switzerland, the [European] leagues didn't interest me that much and the only place for me to grow was to watch the National Hockey League. So all through my time in Switzerland, it was my balance. You get a little tired of watching Belarus and Latvia and Germany. For me, as a lover of the game and a student of the game, the National Hockey League was my balance point. I studied the NHL, so there has been very little culture shock in any way. It was more getting comfortable with the magnitude of the game in a place like Edmonton.
"The importance in society of hockey in Canada, it has gotten bigger than when I lived here before. I mean, it's even larger than life right now, the game of hockey, so it was good I had a couple of years to be in the second seat behind Tom [Renney] to just get comfortable with all those dynamics that are unique to the game of hockey in Canada. Otherwise, my five years of consulting with the Carolina Hurricanes, from 2005-10, were important.
"now I am a head coach accessing some of the greatest talents in the world, which is a different type of coaching completely than maximizing teams to their potential against opposition that are generally always stronger than you. It makes it really an exciting final step in my coaching career." -- Oilers' Coach Ralph Krueger
"Being connected, being at the draft, in conversations with Jim Rutherford, Ron Francis, Peter Laviolette and Jason Karmanos, developing a friendship with Paul Maurice -- those five years helped me a lot in preparation for where I am today. You become a lot closer to the process with one organization."
When the NHL returns, the young, talented, hungry team you will have in Edmonton is very interesting and there is a lot of excitement about it. Fans are paying attention to the AHL team in Oklahoma City because a lot of what they envision the future of the Oilers to be is in Oklahoma City now. How do you keep a young team like the one you'll have measured in its approach and allow the potential to turn into wins?
"It's about continuing to build on what has been done here. Although we finished 30th and 29th, there has been a lot of growing here under the leadership of Tom Renney in the last two seasons, and that doesn't always show up in the standings. There were major changes in the way the organization was being run and major changes in the staff. The whole value system was changed. So there is a good foundation here that Tom Renney built up that I'm going to continue to build upon.
"We don't need to completely change direction; we just need to continue to grow. The winning is something that will not be given to us just because we have talent and skill and high draft choices. As exciting a team as we have been to watch the last two years, it is now my responsibility and with my staff here to work with the players to get us winning and get us into the playoffs. That is not an easy step in the National Hockey League.
"A lot of people respect our skill, so I have never felt in the last two years that teams were unprepared to play the Edmonton Oilers. Even though we were a low-in-the-standings team, we could win on any given night, but now it's about building consistency, getting another level of professionalism in our youth. There is still a lot of work left to do here and it will not be given to us because we are on everybody's radar. We're not going to surprise anybody and they'll all be ready for us. That's something we'll have to learn to deal with."