Although new Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger has a limited body of work in the NHL, the 52-year-old forged the reputation as one of the most astute coaches in European and international hockey prior to serving on Tom Renney's staff in Edmonton the last two seasons. A native of Winnipeg with dual Canadian and German citizenship, Krueger spent two decades playing and coaching in Europe before joining the Oilers in 2010.
Under Krueger, a once directionless Swiss program found a team-wide identity. On a team that boasted little in the way of explosive offensive talent, Krueger instilled an often-airtight defensive system that took advantage of the team's assets: above-average goaltending and numerous smooth-skating and defensively aware players on his roster.
"I think Ralph is a very good coach," current St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock told NHL.com in 2010. "You can see it the way he gets his teams prepared to play and the way they play with patience and discipline. That doesn't happen by accident."
During Krueger's long tenure as the head coach of Team Switzerland (1997-98 to 2009-10) he turned the Swiss national team from an afterthought on the international hockey scene into a team capable of pulling upsets against favored teams.
Krueger's first major tournament as Swiss bench boss was the 1998 World Championship, held in Basel and Zurich. To the delight of the home crowds, the underdog host nation tied favored Slovakia (1-1) and stunned Russia with a 4-2 upset in the medal-round qualification phase. Switzerland advanced to the semifinals before ultimately losing to the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game.
The fourth-place finish was the highest in Krueger's international career. However, his most notable coaching successes came in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. In the Turin Games, the Swiss stunned the hockey world in back-to-back games by defeating the Czech Republic, 3-2, and then shutting out Canada, 2-0. The Swiss finished sixth.
Four years later in Vancouver, the Swiss were highly competitive in the preliminary round. Once again, Krueger's team gave Canada all it could handle, but ultimately lost via shootout to the eventual gold medalists. In the medal round quarterfinals, Team Switzerland battled Team USA hard but was unable to find the net in a 2-0 loss.
While Krueger is a demanding coach, he was also highly respected by his Swiss players. For his part, the coach took pride in their advancement and in the slow but steady growth of the program at all levels from the mid-1990s to the present day.
"These players have come a long way to be able to compete at this level," Krueger told NHL.com following his final game behind the Swiss bench.
Now that he is in charge of the Oilers, Krueger faces a somewhat opposite challenge to the one he tackled in his later years in Switzerland. His Edmonton roster is filled with explosive young offensive talents (No. 1 picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and rookie Nail Yakupov among them), but is need of defensive improvement. However, given that he has spent the last two seasons as an associate coach, Krueger brings instant familiarity with the roster that a candidate hired from the outside might lack.
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As a player, Krueger realized from a young age that the NHL would not be in the cards. Unselected in the NHL Draft following a brief but successful WHL stint as a right wing with Calgary Wranglers, a 20-year-old Krueger headed to West Germany to play in the Bundesliga (the forerunner to the current-day DEL).
In a playing career that spanned most of the 1980s, Krueger became a versatile star in the West German league; not only was he a high scoring forward, but he played on the blue line when needed. Twice, Krueger played for Team West Germany at the IIHF World Championship. Over his later years, he served as a playing assistant coach for German minor league team EV Duisburg.
Krueger formally retired as an active player in 1992, accepting his first coaching job as the head coach of Austrian team VEU Feldkirch in what was then known as the Alpenliga (later disbanded and subsequently reorganized several times into the current-day EBEL). He spent six years coaching in Feldkirch, slowly molding the club into a squad that would earn a spot in the European Champions League in 1997-98. The lightly regarded team ended up embarrassing an unmotivated Dynamo Moscow team in the finals to capture the championship.
Thereafter, Krueger accepted the job with Team Switzerland. Building the Swiss program remained his sole hockey focus for the next 13 years, apart from a stretch in which he concurrently served as a scouting consultant for the Carolina Hurricanes. When Renney and the Oilers offered Krueger his first full-fledged NHL position two years ago, he jumped at the chance.
Krueger, who founded a motivational speaking company and authored an autobiographical self-help book, has gained the reputation for being a coach who emphasizes can-do thinking to his players and pays great attention to detail at practice. While he was unafraid to delegate responsibilities to assistant coaches, Krueger became known for remaining closely involved in all facets of his team's system.
These qualities ultimately convinced Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini that Krueger was the right man to succeed Renney and try to elevate the young Edmonton team to the next level.
"When I think of Ralph, I think of someone who has immense information, Tambellini told the team's official website. "That's vast experience with regards to professional hockey overseas as well as right here as an associate coach. When I watched that work with our group, knowing we have players from all over the world, I think his ability to communicate and think of tactics that work for different people is incredible. This is a big thing for us. I know Ralph and his family are extremely excited. This is a big step in his career but he deserves it, and we're very excited about it."
The new Edmonton coach's son, Justin Krueger, has acquired his father's passion for international hockey. Born in Switzerland and a member of Team Germany at the most recent World Championship, Daniel played last season in the AHL for the Charlotte Checkers. A Cornell University graduate, Daniel was drafted by Carolina in the seventh round (No. 213) of the 2006 draft. The defenseman played one season in the Swiss National League for SC Bern and represented both the German junior and senior national teams before returning to North America to play in the AHL.