BUFFALO – Three years ago, in the midst of his tenure as chairman of Southampton F.C., an English Premier League team, new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger briefly returned to his roots.
Krueger, who hadn’t been behind a bench since the Edmonton Oilers fired him in 2013, took a job coaching Team Europe’s entry at the World Cup of Hockey.
While Krueger wanted to remain in his role in Southampton, the short hockey gig reignited his passion.
“That definitely confirmed that in my heart of hearts I’m a coach,” Krueger said on a conference call Wednesday after being introduced as the 19th head coach in Sabres history. “My kids have been telling me ever since that’s the happiest I’ve looked in the last six years was when I was coaching hockey at the World Cup.”
Team Europe, which featured stars Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Thomas Vanek, started from the ground up. The new creation defied expectations, becoming the tournament’s darling before losing to mighty Team Canada in the final.
Krueger, 59, might be the Sabres’ coach today because of what his squad accomplished at World Cup.
In addition to Krueger rediscovering his love of coaching, Europe’s success turned heads. The Winnipeg native, who had one abbreviated season of NHL head coaching experience, probably put himself back on teams’ radar.
Still, Krueger was rumored to be looking to return to the NHL in some sort of front office role.
“When it was clear I was stepping away from Southampton and I was coming back to hockey, I wanted to open up my viewfinder and a lot of opportunities started coming in my direction,” Krueger said.
Nothing, Krueger said, “lit my fire” like his conversations with Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. Krueger said the two had “natural communication” and Botterill “embodied a lot of the things that I care about,” including the culture he is trying to drive.
“I could just feel the coaching magnet calling me back,” Krueger said.
Krueger’s meeting with Sabres owner Terry Pegula and president Kim Pegula last month confirmed what Botterill had told him about the organization. They made Krueger passionate about taking the job.
Krueger, then an unknown candidate, also developed some appreciation for the local community by going from bar to bar and talking to fans during some NHL playoff games.
“With Ralph’s resume, I know he had other opportunities, and that’s what gets us excited, is that he wanted to come here and he wanted to be part of our group here,” Botterill said inside KeyBank Center. “And as much as he has a unique resume, you look at it, he is a kid from Manitoba who loves the game of hockey. He loves coaching. He has a passion about being a teacher.”
Krueger is an intriguing hire. His resume is by far the most unique of any NHL coach.
After five years as a high-ranking soccer executive, he’s returning to the NHL. When has something like that ever happened in any major North American sport?
Krueger made his name coaching Switzerland’s national team for 13 years. His success led to a two-year run as an associate coach in Edmonton and eventually the head job. While he was working in Switzerland, he also consulted for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Botterill, of course, is taking a risk hiring someone with 48 games as an NHL coach under his belt.
Still, having started his coaching career nearly 30 years ago, Krueger possesses plenty of experience, something the Sabres coveted after firing Phil Housley, a first-time coach.
But Krueger hasn’t coached regularly in six years. Why is he the right guy right now for the Sabres, a team that owns an eight-year playoff drought, the NHL’s longest?
Botterill said the Sabres put a lot of stock into Krueger’s international experience at the Olympics, World Championship and World Cup.
In 2006, Botterill said he watched Krueger’s Swiss squad upset Canada at the Torino Games. Eight years later, Canada hired Krueger to work with its Olympic team.
“Those are high-pressure situations where you have to make adjustments and you have to make quick decisions, and he got results in those situations,” Botterill said of the international competitions. “That was impressive from our standpoint.
“When we did the follow-up (interviews) from talking with different players who had worked under Ralph, they felt he was a very good communicator with them. That ability to get the most out of a group and communicate with a group we felt was a very good fit for our situation in Buffalo.”
Krueger said he “stayed very close to the game” during time in Southampton, often communicating with NHL coaches.
“Watching games and observing the way the league is operating has always been important to me,” Krueger said.
Despite another sorry season – after ranking first overall in late November, the Sabres morphed into the league’s worst team over the final months – Krueger believes he has inherited a strong club.
Naturally, he mentioned the Sabres’ base of young talent: captain Jack Eichel, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and others.
“This group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night,” Krueger said. “I’m confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly.”
Considering the Sabres have been one of the NHL’s also-rans for years, those are strong words. What makes Krueger confident the Sabres can quickly turn things around?
“The parity in the National Hockey League is what makes the league so great,” Krueger said. “Where Buffalo has been and where we’re going to go, it’s percentage points that make the difference. It’s getting those percentage points right. I believe that all great players and developing players need some pain to understand the complete game that’s necessary to be a success in the National Hockey League. …
“I’m at heart, of course, an optimistic coach and an optimistic person, but I don’t believe I’m a dreamer. I believe I’m a realist and I’m looking at what I see here.”