This will be hockey’s version of David versus Goliath, this best-of-three World Cup of Hockey final that begins on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.
Or, perhaps more fitting, Davids versus Goliath.
A collection of players from lesser European hockey powers – six Germans, six Slovaks, four Swiss, three Danes and one apiece from Austria, France, Norway and Slovenia – will go up against Team Canada, a juggernaut with “four first lines,” as Ralph Krueger put it Monday.
It will be a weird end to a weird World Cup. Krueger, Team Europe’s charismatic coach, has tried to normalize it all, but even he can’t quite escape the peculiar fact that, two years ago, he was on the Canadian bench, helping them win gold at the Sochi Olympics.
Now, the 57-year-old from Winnipeg is trying to thwart Canada’s latest best-on-best assault – and lift the trophy with 23 players who have never won a major international tournament.
“Shouldn’t have had him in Sochi,” Canadian coach Mike Babcock joked. “That was a mistake.”
“He was a big part of what happened in Sochi,” explained Doug Armstrong, Canada’s general manager at this event. “He knows. He sat in … every coaching meeting [and] was part of how we were going to beat the European teams. Now he’s got a collection of the European players [to beat us]. He understands how Mike operates.”
Krueger and Babcock have become fast friends, beginning when their teams played at the World Championship in 2004 in Czech Republic; Krueger coached the Swiss at the time. Nearly a decade later, Babcock called Krueger almost immediately after he was unceremoniously fired via Skype by the Edmonton Oilers. Babcock wanted him to be part of Canada’s Olympic effort.
They went on to learn each other’s systems intimately, with Krueger bringing a more European approach – and serving as an expert on how to play on the big ice surface – given his long career as a player and coach in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
For his team to have any chance against Canada this time, Krueger knows his team will need to trap, get good goaltending and be opportunistic.
Anyone expecting the fire-wagon hockey that the under-24 kids played in this tournament will be disappointed.
“That’ll be a clash of systems in certain ways,” Krueger said. “You’ll feel more of a European game against the Canadian game.”
Beyond that, he would not reveal what he learned about Babcock’s system that can be exploited with an inferior roster. “There's opportunity there for us that we’re going to try and find,” Krueger said.
Canadian teams stacked with NHLers have run into problems against smaller European powers playing a non-aggressive trap. The Czechs famously beat Canada in a shootout in the semi-finals of the 1998 Olympics, in large part thanks to Dominik Hasek’s play in goal.
Canada then narrowly beat Germany in the 2002 preliminary round and lost 2-0 to both Finland and Krueger’s Swiss team in Turin in 2006. Four years later, Krueger’s club took Team Canada to a shootout in the preliminary round at the Vancouver Games.
In both games against the Swiss, Canada had a huge advantage on the shot clock. But this time Krueger is coaching a much more talented roster, one anchored by Zdeno Chara and Roman Josi on defence and captain Anze Kopitar up front.
And his stars and depth players alike have bought in fully to his game plan.
“We’re not going to get outworked tomorrow,” said centre Frans Nielsen, who Krueger has praised as one of the top two-way players in the world. “We know we’ve got good defence and are tough to create chances against. Hopefully we can make it hard on them.”
“That’s a veteran group over there,” Canada’s Steven Stamkos said. “They’ve been around for a long time. They have guys who have won [in the NHL], and they lean on those guys. They’ve got a good defence, good goaltender. So we know it’s not going to be easy.”
The oddsmakers don’t seem to agree. Team Europe has improved its odds of winning the World Cup from 33-to-1 at the start of the event to a shade under 6-to-1, but that’s still hugely lopsided for an international final. And that was before Europe lost winger Marian Gaborik to a foot injury for the rest of the tournament.
Win or lose, Krueger has already raised his standing in NHL circles. He had basically ruled out ever returning to coach in the league after how things ended in Edmonton, and he landed on his feet spectacularly – he’s chairman of English Premier League club Southampton.
Now, with the way Team Europe has banded together and the effusive praise from his players, it certainly seems possible an NHL team will take a chance on him down the road.
“It’s been awesome,” Nielsen said of playing 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.”
“I’ve loved this month back on the bench, back in the fire, in the game that is forever going to be ingrained in who I am and in my heart,” Krueger said. “For now, let’s enjoy this.”
And try to take down Goliath.Report Typo/Error