Second nature for Oilers' Krueger
Ralph Krueger is ready to take over as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers (Perry Mah/QMI Agency).
Seventy-five days ago, Ralph Krueger was named head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Then, poof, he disappeared from public view.
After months of noisy public debate on the fate of Tom Renney, coverage of Brent Sutter’s audition under Kevin Lowe at the world championships and then then revelation in this space that he was going to get the job, complete with detailed backgrounding of the life and times of the former Swiss national coach, Ralph Krueger was press conferenced and then just sort of went away.
Where did he go? What’s he been doing? What’s he been thinking?
For the most part, Ralph Krueger went and spent the summer consorting with a bunch of bald eagles, black bears and a family of loons.
“After all of this happened to me, going back to nature was a great thing,” said Krueger of becoming an NHL head coach for the first time, taking a road seldom traveled to a top job and, after a busy first week on the job, returned to his summer cottage near Kenora, Ont.
“The great thing about nature is that it looks at you exactly the same. The eagles and the bears don’t change the way they view you one bit.
“We’ve got the biggest bald headed eagle population in North America. There are three nests within two miles of my cabin. We’ve got lots of black bears. And we have the same family of loons on the lake which were there when we bought the cabin in 1996.”
Ralph Krueger is back in Edmonton full time, starting today, preparing for training camp as if there were actually going to be one, he has been in and out-of-town a few times for three or four day stretches. And he’s found the reaction of the local population to be slightly more interested in him than those bald eagles.
“My recognition has gone up dramatically,” was the first thing he noticed.
“When I came back I still did my stairs up from the river valley. I love running the river valley and finishing it by running up those stairs. I did it three times and it was fun to have people recognize me.
“I did it a lot when I was the associate coach. I still kind of smile remembering that a Sun photographer asked if I minded him taking a picture of me out there one day. He had no idea who I was. They didn’t run the picture with the river valley stairs story either,” he laughed about the photo accompanying this column.
Krueger didn’t know what to expect with the reaction to his hiring here.
“My wife Glenda asked me the same question. I told her they’ve been really nice so far. The people have been very friendly. They wish me good luck and welcome me in the grocery stores. They’ve just been very warm.
“I haven’t lost a game yet, but that’s how I hope it stays. I just want to be Ralph. The same guy.”
The reaction from Europe which was Krueger’s hockey home for two decades, has been different.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Through the roof.
“The media reception in Europe has been very, very strong. Really positive. The Europeans are very excited. My sense is that they feel very proud, like I’m carrying a torch for them.”
Krueger said his wife will be here for the season but not until the end of training camp.
“She’s never happily with me at training camp. Over the years she’s learned that training camp and playoffs are never a time you want to be around a hockey coach.”
Krueger said he may have been out there with the bears, loons but his mind seldom left his hockey team.
“While the coaches meetings begin Monday, during the summer I thought about the team non-stop. I always think about my teams non-stop during the summer.
“I’m an early morning person and I like being out there with nature. In the summer I like to do something different ever day. I go running. I go biking. I’ve taken up stand-up paddle-boarding. I do that for hours. And most of the time I’m doing those things, I’m spending my time thinking about the team and thinking about the players and how I can tap into them.
“Tapping into your players is, I believe, the most important thing you can do. I think most NHL coaches are pretty equal when it comes to the technical side of the game.”
Tapping into a player isn’t an overnight thing. But it had to be for Krueger the day he signed in the case of one specific player.
While you may picture Krueger as having been signed and press conferenced only to have a long disconnect which may go really long with the lockout looming, it certainly hasn’t worked like that. Not from Day 1.
“When it came to the interaction with management, we got to know each other quickly in the Justin Schultz case.
“Very quickly. The day I signed I left you guys at the press conference and went to the airport and got on owner Daryl Katz’s private plane and flew to Toronto to work on a very serious project that we were able to win.”
It wasn’t his first time on Katz’s plane.
“They actually sent it to Kenora to pick me up to fly me to Edmonton for the press conference.”
Talk to some of the people in the room where the Oilers made their pitch to free agent Wisconsin college star defenceman and they’ll tell you Krueger was brilliant. Krueger says the same thing about everybody involved.
“Craig MacTavish was waiting for us in Toronto. We prepared for the meeting that evening,” he said of being given an hour and a half to make a presentation.
“The next day was something like I’ve never experienced.
“Management talked about the big picture, our future and the new downtown arena. Taylor Hall joined us and talked about the players. Paul Coffey called in to talk to Justin on the phone in the middle. I spoke a good 15 to 20 minutes.
“MacT had drawn up a very organized and well thought-out concept that we presented.
“The presentation was very open and very honest. I think that’s what Justin felt very comfortable with. Justin felt very connected in that time period. I think that had a lot to do with the decision he made, which I believe will turn out to be a very wise decision.”
“I told him it was the responsibility of the head coach to do everything in my power to find his potential, my opportunity, to make him the best player he could be.
“I knew he was a big team player and I really went into what we’re all involved with here in trying to create a team growing on a journey. I talked about that from several different directions — athletically, with the human element and the character.
“I came at him pretty philosophical. I tried to explain how I wanted a very compact, very honest, very hard working team environment.
“I found out before we got there that Justin is a first-one-on-the-ice, last-one-off kind of player. I didn’t tell him it would be easy. I told him it would be hard. I didn’t put any roses on the table. I put the facts. I sensed Justin liked the facts. There was no color coding or icing. Not from me. Not from anybody.
“We explained where we saw his potential. We never guaranteed him a top four defenceman role or ice time or anything like that. It’s obvious he wants to earn it. And I’m confident his ability will take him there very quickly.”
During the three days it took for other teams to make their presentations, Krueger thought a lot about Schultz and how fortunate he’d be in this situation if they landed him.
“I imagined the kind of defenceman we could most use. I thought of the profile of someone to fit in for the future. And I saw Justin Schultz.
“It was very big moment for me when I received the call from Steve Tambelini. I was at development camp. Justin is an important piece.”
Krueger said it felt like being hired one day and getting a second No. 1 pick presented to you three days later.
“For me it was more than another early pick in the draft. He’s matured already to an advanced stage. He’s further developed than a first pick overall. An 18 year old defencean is almost always a couple of years away.”
Ralph Krueger can’t wait to coach him and all the top young talent which has been assembled on the team. But he’s probably going to have to wait. And maybe quite a while.
PART TWO MONDAY
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