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Coach Krueger’s strange journey to Team Europe in the hockey World Cup Add to ...

The chairman of Southampton Football Club, just four games into the English Premier League season, is explaining how he came to make the improbable journey to coach Team Europe in hockey’s World Cup. This is Ralph Krueger, last seen in the NHL as the pre-Connor McDavid coach of the Edmonton Oilers.

Krueger’s dismissal after a single, lockout-shortened season in favour of Dallas Eakins was a head-scratcher back in June of 2013.

But in the long history of the NHL’s hired-to-be-fired set, arguably no one landed on his feet more emphatically than Krueger, a 57-year-old native of Steinbach, Man., who played his junior hockey in Canada and had an extensive sports résumé – just not in soccer.

It happened this way: Southampton, a team that finished a solid sixth in last season’s standings, is owned by Katharina Liebherr, a Swiss businesswoman who inherited the club from her father six years ago. Though Krueger was a long-time coach of the Swiss men’s national hockey team, the connection to the Liebherr family came because of his work outside of sport. Since 2011, Krueger has been a member of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on new models of leadership, which is how he came to get an interview for the Southampton job.

“I never had a plan to get into football at all. What I was excited about was the leadership challenge in and around the Southampton Football Club,” said Krueger, who said his first conversation with Liebherr in 2013 lasted three hours, and philosophically, they just clicked.

Soon after, Liebherr offered him the job, but Krueger was then acting as a special adviser to Canadian Olympic coach Mike Babcock going into the Sochi Games, and didn’t want to leave the team in the lurch. So he asked if she would delay the appointment so he could complete his Olympic commitment.

“She gave me that space, just as she’s giving me the space now for the World Cup,” Krueger explained. “I told her a year ago, ‘I’ve been asked to coach the European team.’ She said, ‘Is it going to make you a better leader?’ I said ‘Yes’ and so she said ‘Go.’ That’s the kind of woman she is.”

Uniting Team Europe will be among Krueger’s greatest challenges. Unlike the under-24 North American team, with players who can get by on youthful enthusiasm, Krueger is working with skaters from eight countries.

Not many championships have been won, outside of golf’s Solheim and Ryder Cups, under the rallying cry “Let’s win one for our continent.”

Anze Kopitar may bleed for Slovenia and Mark Streit will sweat for Switzerland, but getting them to play with the sort of energy and zeal usually associated with best-on-best international competition will test Krueger’s motivational skills. But it is something at which he has proved quite adept.

In his short stint with Edmonton, the prize free agent of the summer of 2012 was Justin Schultz, a graduating collegian who had the right to play anywhere in the NHL. Dozens of teams pursued him. When Schultz unexpectedly picked Edmonton – considered a coup at the time – he cited Krueger’s vision as one of his primary reasons for signing with the Oilers.

Presumably, Krueger will use the same persuasive voice to get his collection of European all-stars on the same page.

“There was some cynicism about Team Europe at the start, but I can tell you, all the guys have embraced it,” Krueger said. “All the players are going to have their country’s flag on their arms, so when Anze Kopitar walks into Team Europe, he still represents Slovenia in everything he does.

“Every time these guys played Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czechs, Canada or the U.S. in their whole careers, they’ve always been the outsider, an underdog. Now, through the synergies of all these countries, playing together, they have a chance to look the big boys in the eye – and I think they will embrace that.

“From a system standpoint, in the end, we need to get them to play together on the ice – that’s the only thing that really matters. We can do all the off-ice stuff we want; if we don’t connect on the ice, it really won’t matter.”

However the World Cup experience turns out, Krueger will be back at his day job by early October, with the British soccer season in full swing. At Southampton, Krueger introduced an NHL-style hierarchy to the organization, doubling the size of the scouting staff and putting a general manager and a coach in charge of personnel decisions.

Upon arriving in Southampton, one of Krueger’s primary objectives was to build up the business off the field, so the team had the revenues to better develop players. Gareth Bale and others have come through the Southampton youth academy, and that is where they’ve devoted some of the new cash that Krueger’s initiatives have generated.

“What I love about Southampton compared to the NHL is our most important recruiting age is five– and six-year-olds,” he said. “We have 300 kids who we billet out and live with the club. Right now, we have five players from our own youth team playing on our first team, and they’re going to play minutes.

“So it’s a mix of being an NHL president and running an entire youth program at the same time. I love that combination. On Sundays, I can go watch a bunch of eight-year-olds play, so it keeps you grounded and rooted as a sports person.”

Southampton finished ahead of perennial powerhouses Liverpool and Chelsea in last year’s standings, and just three points behind mighty Manchester City and Manchester United. The challenge will be to duplicate those results a year after Leicester City unexpectedly won the Premier League and put all the major clubs on high alert. In the early stages of the new season, Krueger acknowledged, “The big boys have come out growling,” and the minnows have some work to do – Southampton has two draws and two losses going into this weekend’s game against Swansea.

But the base of the restructured franchise is now established, and it depends heavily on growing revenues to stay competitive.

“If you look at us now compared to when we started, we had almost no commercial partnerships,” Krueger said. “We just did a seven-year deal with Under Armour this summer, the biggest commercial deal in the history of the club. [The sports-apparel company was] our sponsor in Edmonton, and I developed a relationship with them and [Under Armour founder and CEO] Kevin Plank. It’s funny how small the sports world is.

“We also, as a main sponsor, have Virgin Media, which is a really good brand. These are the kinds of deals that we’re starting to get in Southampton that I’m really proud of; this is the way we can build our business to become competitive with the top six or seven teams. It’s our only chance, and commercially, we’ve taken big steps.”

At the moment, Krueger is mostly focused on piloting hybrid Team Europe, which will be featured in the tournament-opener at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Saturday afternoon against the United States.

“For me, having been part of the Sochi journey, I realize how good Canada is,” Krueger said. “That team and those six [starting] defencemen, they were the best six defencemen ever to play for a team, the way they executed throughout the tournament. I’d never seen anything like it. Then we had [Carey] Price on the back end, playing as good as he can possibly play, and our forward lines – everybody accepted their roles. Rick Nash led us in penalty killing. That was the kind of team we had there.

“So for me, Canada is the favourite, but I’ll tell you, all the other seven teams could make the final for sure. Canada would have to be upset not to be there, but right now, you can’t write anybody off.”

Krueger, who also spent time as an assistant coach in Edmonton, feels no bitterness over how things ended there.

“I would have loved to finish the story with the Oilers – that was the plan at the time. But they chose a different path, and I never had any hard feelings about that,” Krueger said. “I was grateful for the experience. The way these players function nowadays, and the big business they are as individuals, and managing that properly, the NHL truly paved the way for me.”

As for the future, Krueger had an overture this summer from an NHL team, looking to see if he was interested in returning to coach, but he declined with thanks.

“I would never say never to coming back to hockey, but at this moment in time, this World Cup couldn’t be a more perfect gig,” he said. “To be able to jump back into hockey for a month, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I can stay connected to the game without giving up what I have in Southampton.

“We’re going to the World Cup to have fun. We’re not going to overstructure [the players] to death. I hope we do well and this World Cup franchise lives on and I get to do it again in four years. Right now, we want Team Europe to represent so well that the NHL considers doing this again – and why not? It’s a great opportunity for some of these smaller countries to actually win something.”

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