By choice or by circumstance, the game of hockey often resembles a small, insular community. That may explain why so many of the same coaches and executives repeatedly cycle through different NHL organizations. It is also a familiar — and somewhat humorous — explanation for why the same clubs hire the same coach several years after initially dismissing them (see: Carlyle, Hitchcock, Julien).
Teams also have a tendency to promote from within their ranks. The Canucks did this with Alain Vigneault in 2006 and might do the same with Travis Green in 2017. Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise Monday to learn that Vancouver has been in contact with current Southampton FC Chairperson Ralph Krueger.
Hearing VAN interested in Ralph Krueger, who excelled with World Cup Team Europe. But, is there any desire to leave Southampton FC?
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 18, 2017
Now, despite his current appointment, Krueger is every bit a hockey man. He was born in Manitoba to German immigrant parents, and would eventually play professional hockey in the German Bundesliga as an adult.
Internationally, Krueger played 45 games for the German national team. After retiring, Krueger would coach in Austria, win five straight national championships, and then take the helm behind the bench of the Swiss national team for the better part of the next decade. His lasting claim to fame from that tenure was the stunning 2-0 upset victory over Canada in the preliminary round of the 2006 Olympics in Turin. His Swiss teams would consistently play structured, sound defensive hockey to compete with teams with far more talent. Krueger gained a reputation for doing more with less.
Following his stint with the Swiss national team, Krueger served as an assistant coach with the moribund Edmonton Oilers from 2010-2012. Although the club continued to languish at the bottom of the NHL standings, the power play — an aspect for which Krueger was responsible — rose from 27th in the NHL in his first season, to third the next. When Krueger was promoted to head coach for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Oilers once again had a top-ten power play (if not a top-ten team), finishing with the league’s eighth-most proficient power play. Edmonton, with its 19-22-7 record, placed third in a weak Northwest Division. That record, however, was the best mark the Oilers achieved over a ten-year span. Given what he was working with that season, Krueger could once again point to maximizing the performance of his players.
That off-season, a shake-up in the Oilers’ front office resulted in Krueger’s firing — over Skype, no less. While the Oilers’ on-ice fortunes soon plummeted under new coach Dallas Eakins, Krueger was contacted a mere 48 hours later by Canadian Olympic coach Mike Babcock to act as a ‘consultant’ for the 2014 Games in Sochi. His knowledge of the international game and ice surface proved a boon to Team Canada, as the men’s squad turned in one of the most dominating performances in modern Olympic history.
Shortly before the Games, Krueger had joined the board of directors for Southampton FC in the English Premier League. Krueger, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council (where he specializes in models of leadership), was contacted by Southampton owner Katharina Liebherr to work for the club. “I never had a plan to get into football at all,” he told Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail, “What I was excited about was the leadership challenge in and around the Southampton Football Club.” Liebherr would later permit Krueger to coach the European entry at last year’s World Cup of Hockey — to further his leadership skills — and he would guide the underdog team to a stunning second-place finish.
He was very popular with the players of Team Europe. “It’s been awesome,” Frans Nielsen said when asked what it was like to play for Krueger. “He’s just so positive every day. Just getting to know him; He’s a really smart guy, not only about hockey but everything. It’s been really fun just sitting [in the dressing room] picking his brain.”
The Canucks reaching out to Krueger comes as a surprise on two accounts. First, as mentioned above, he is something of a hockey outsider. Although a brilliant and articulate hockey mind, he has had very limited NHL experience. Secondly, with such a high-profile position already in place, what would it take to bring him back behind the bench of an NHL franchise?
But maybe the Canucks are less interested in bringing in Krueger to coach, instead of flirting with the possibility of having him help buttress the front office. From Patrick Johnston over at the Vancouver Sun and Province:
It’s been rumoured for some time that the Canucks have been looking to add a third voice to their front office leadership group.
Another matter must also be taken into consideration. While Liebherr’s attempt to sell some of her stake in Southampton FC to Chinese consortium Lander Sports Development fell through recently, the spectre of changing ownership may open the door for Krueger to return to hockey. Given his close relationship with Liebherr, it makes sense to speculate that if her role somehow reduced then, Krueger could look for opportunities elsewhere — like Vancouver. As Southampton chair, he has expanded business relations with partners like Under Armour and Virgin Media. The Canucks, like any NHL franchise, could stand to benefit from bringing in someone with those corporate partnerships and experience.
Contacted by Elliotte Friedman yesterday morning, Krueger re-affirmed his commitment to Southampton but did not exactly close the door on a return to the NHL.
these past weeks, but my focus remains fully on the Saints for now." So there you go.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 18, 2017
While the Canucks’ interest in Krueger might be purely from a managerial perspective, the club could also use his expertise behind the bench. His power play strategy should be enough to warrant interest from the Canucks, which had a man advantage to match its overall record — second-last in the NHL.
Krueger has a reputation as a leader who thinks the game well, and he has a track record of getting the most out of his teams. Bringing in Krueger to coach the Canucks would certainly be thinking outside the traditional box, but the organization could do a lot worse than the former Swiss national team bench boss.