As reported by most of the Internet yesterday, including our own Bruce McCurdy, Ralph Krueger (whoever that is) is the newest associate coach (whatever that is) of the Edmonton Oilers (and oh do we ever know who they are).
Tradition demands that I go into an excess of detail telling you why I hate this move and think Steve Tambellini ought to be lit on fire for committing it. But tradition will have to take a running leap, since I just don't know much about Ralph Krueger. I know that he ran the Swiss national hockey program since Kelly Buchberger was captain, which is good as far as it goes since in the last decade Switzerland has moved to the front of the third class of hockey powers.
As early as last year, Krueger had announced his impending resignation from the Swiss Olympic team. They had been a tweener between the A and B pools at the World Championships since the war, but Krueger brought them up to a comfortable eighth and even as high as seventh in the world. For Switzerland, passing Germany had once seemed impossible, but Krueger did it. Getting the Slovaks had to be pure pleasure but surpassing Germany must have been a mixed blessing for him since Krueger has come to the hockey world via the German league and the German national team.
Whatever his qualifications as a coach, on which I am unfit to comment, Ralph Krueger has had a hell of a career both on and off the ice. After the jump, we see just who this mystery man is.
Krueger is his own little United Nations of hockey. Ralph was, like most Swiss hockey icons, born on the Canadian prairies (specifically Winnipeg, Manitoba). After a modest career in the Western Hockey League Krueger moved to Germany and what was then called the 1.Bundesliga but has since reformed as the Deutsche Eishockey Liga or DEL. His son Justin was born while Ralph played for Düsseldorfer EG (today's DEG Metro Stars) and the younger Krueger is a contributing member of the German national team. Ralph himself turned out for West Germany in the 1980s, although by the time the Wall fell and a reunited German team found itself as a world competitor Krueger's playing career had ended.
After hanging up the blades Krueger moved to Feldkirch, Austria, to manage the local VEU Feldkirch side. Feldkirch at the time was a mid-table side in the first division Österreichische Nationalliga but with Krueger in the fold progress was rapid. His first season, VEU Feldkirch went 18-25-7. The next year they were up to 24-16-6. Under Krueger in 1995-96 Feldkirch posted the finest season in the modern history of the Austrian first division, going 23-2-3. Most famously, in 1998 VEU Feldkirch became the only team from outside the big four European leagues to win a continental competition, defeating Dynamo Moscow 5-3 in the final of the European Hockey League.
Austria is, of course, a hockey backwater, but Krueger's teams never let the country down against bigger opposition. Feldkirch featured some players you'd have heard of, as well, most famously former WHA Oiler and (unfortunately) long-time NHL Capital Bengt Gustafsson. Gustafsson actually finished his career with Feldkirch, playing his last four games under Krueger in 1998-99 at the age of forty. One-time Oiler draft pick, former Victoria Cougar, and cameo NHLer with the Rangers and Jets, Simon Wheeldon was Krueger's scoring star until both left after the 1999 Austrian league season. The NHL's first Austrian goaltender, Reinhard Divis, played his first five professional seasons with Krueger's crew.
The Canadian-born German working in Austria completed his Teutonic trifecta in 1997 when he was named head coach of the Swiss national team. Krueger was, in fact, still running Feldkirch at the time, for Switzerland's hockey program was so insignificant and the funding so paltry the national team rated only a part-time coach for two years until Krueger resigned from Feldkirch (now relegated to the Austrian second division) and assumed full-time control of the Swiss program.
A year after Krueger was hired as Swiss coach, Steve Yzerman was part of the catastrophic Canadian fourth-place team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Switzerland did not qualify. The year Krueger resigned, Yzerman had picked the delighted Canadian gold medalists in Vancouver. Switzerland finished eighth. Ralph Krueger had never managed more than a middle power but he was an epoch unto himself.
Krueger was never complacent. In 2006, Krueger joined the scouting staff of the Carolina Hurricanes as a European scout. What a fantastic job he must have done for them, as between 2006 and 2010 Carolina drafted no players from Germany, Austria, or Switzerland and only three from Europe at all.
Switzerland under Krueger participated in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Olympics, with a high water mark of sixth in Torino. At the 1998 World Championships Switzerland placed an astounding fourth on home ice when they recorded a magnificent 4-2 win over Russia before losing to Sweden and the Czech Republic in the elimination rounds by a combined score of 11-2. But that one glorious winter aside, what distinguished Switzerland under Krueger was not flashy headline-grabbing upsets but sheer, workmanlike consistency. They were never better than sixth at the World Championships and never worse than ninth. They didn't rely on headlines by banking pucks off Tommy Salo's mask and getting onto SportsCentre; they made their bones by being reliably good at hockey.
When he resigned after the Vancouver Olympics (being succeeded by former Kingston Canadian Sean Simpson), Ralph Krueger was by any measure the most successful coach in Swiss hockey history. For all his experience Krueger is only 51; sixteen years younger than Pat Quinn, a year younger than Steve Tambellini, and four years younger than his current boss Tom Renney. He has lots of miles left on the odometer and lots left to give the game of hockey.
The only question is whether he can adjust to the NHL as readily as he adjusted to the international game. But - and I can't quite believe I'm saying this - I think I'm optimistic.