Ralph Krueger has taken the path less travelled to become the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
He's not like the Jack Adams-winning Ken Hitchcock, a career coach who worked his way from junior to assistant coach in the NHL to minor pro and back to the NHL as a head coach. Krueger also is different than Stanley Cup-winning bench boss Darryl Sutter, the ex-NHLer who immediately began a career in coaching after his playing days.
Krueger played in the Western Hockey League under colourful head coach Doug Sauter with the old Calgary Wranglers in 1978-79. Then, the native of Steinbach, Man., who also had a German passport, departed for Germany to embark on a successful playing career.
"I had him as a 19 year old. He came in and worked real hard to become a well-rounded player," Sauter said. "I knew he was going to be a success when he went off to Europe.
"I think it's about time that he gets a shot in the NHL. It's a league that tends to recycle and recycle and recycle. This move gives all those coaches in junior and the AHL who don't think they will get a shot some hope."
Before he became the colour analyst and ambassador for the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League, Sauter spent 36 years as a coach in junior and the minor pro game. He never got a shot in the NHL and always wondered if that had something to do with his outside interests in rodeo and training Clydesdale horses.
Krueger also has interests outside hockey. He also is a motivational speaker and author of the book Teamlife: Over Setbacks to Success, which has been translated into four languages.
After a back injury ended his days as a right wing in Dusseldorf prematurely, Krueger stayed in Europe to coach in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and won nothing but championships. He turned heads for 13 years behind the bench of the Swiss national team, and caught everybody's attention when he steered Switzerland to that 2-0 upset over Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Following dad's footsteps
A short time later, Krueger began working as a European-based scout for the Carolina Hurricanes. His son Justin, a Cornell University grad, was drafted by the Hurricanes in the seventh round (213th overall) in the 2006 NHL entry draft. Just like Dad, Justin slowly has developed into a prospect for Carolina. He has enjoyed time with the German national team and last season played well for the Hurrcianes' AHL affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. before a late-season injury ended his year.
Hurricanes exec Ron Francis got to know the Kruegers and has come away impressed with not only the young player in the Carolina organization, but the new Oilers head coach.
"I think Ralph is extremely bright and knowledgeable," Francis said. "If you put those two factors together with his passion for teaching the game and I think you have an excellent combination of traits for a head coach."
One of Krueger's strengths is his personality. He has a good sense of humour and always has been an effective communicator.
"He's an interesting person to spend time with," Francis said. "I think he has an excellent grasp on life. He's a real solid individual."
Sauter got a chance to catch up with his former player last season, when Krueger showed up in Oklahoma City to not only see some of the future Oilers perform, but watch his son Justin play for the opposition.
"His maturity and knowledge of the game was evident," Sauter said of spending time with Krueger after not having seen him in years. "It also was nice to see a Dad watch his son play. He was so proud."
Krueger, who turns 53 on Aug. 31, is the fourth Oilers coach in five seasons. After it was decided that Craig MacTavish's time was up with the Oilers, Pat Quinn was brought in along with Tom Renney as his associate coach. Quinn lasted only a year before he was replaced by Renney, who brought in Krueger from Switzerland as his associate coach. After only two years Krueger replaced Renney.
In his introductory press conference, he talked about getting a stick, skates and hockey gloves for his fourth birthday and hockey has been his passion ever since. Francis and Sauter have no doubt that passion will come shining through with all that young talent in Edmonton with the Oilers next season.
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