If Ralph Krueger wanted the easy option, he'd still be coach of the national hockey program in Switzerland, where he's enjoyed much success and is considered something of a puck guru.
Of course, choosing that would have been contradictory to just about everything Krueger espouses as a coach and go against the very foundation of how he's taught the game -- take on a challenge, strive to get better, don't settle into a comfort zone.
So, when friend and confident Tom Renney called him this summer, the easy option of a return to Switzerland was out. Instead, Krueger signed as an associate coach with the Edmonton Oilers
, where the challenges are many and the comfort zone is non-existent after four years out of the playoffs and a 30th-place finish last season.
Let it never be said Krueger is a graduate of the convenient "Do as I say, not as I do" school of coaching.
"Look at his body of work. He was able to make his game in Switzerland make sense to his players. When you take an entire ice hockey federation and give it confidence, a chance to operate with some swagger, be a legitimate contender in world championships and Olympic games and put the fear of God into the big teams, you're doing something right."
-- Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney on Ralph Krueger
"The easy thing would have been to stay in Europe and ride that train," Krueger said. "This was an opportunity for me to challenge myself. First as a coach, then in an environment of growth -- not only here in the coaching room, but as a whole organization. That's as exciting as it can get when you're a coach at heart.
"You want situations that challenge you to get the potential out of the group, but also where you can really make a difference. I feel we can do that in Edmonton."
Krueger, 51, joins Renney and assistants Kelly Buchberger
and Steve Smith
on Edmonton's coaching staff after 12 years (1998-2010) at the helm of the Swiss program.
He coached Switzerland in 12 World Championships and three Olympics (2002, 2006, 2010), a stretch in which the Swiss climbed from 15th in IIHF rankings to seventh, capped by an eighth-place following a 2-0 loss to Team USA in Vancouver last February.
Krueger, a Winnipeg native, is an author, having written the book, "Team Life: Over Losses to Success." He is considered by many in Europe as one of hockey's forward-thinkers. He has served as a consultant with the Carolina Hurricanes
-- who drafted his son, Justin, in 2006 -- since 2005.
Even with that resume, some people on this side of the Atlantic asked, "Ralph who?" when the announcement Krueger was joining Renney's staff was made in July.
"What you've got here is a guy who will put air in the tires of this organization," Renney said. "He's one of those guys who is more than current. He's ahead of the curve.
"He's a guy who is very plugged into the game and how to play it. Players want that. He's one of those guys who has tremendous inter-personal skills. He's a terrific teacher. He can make sense of almost any part of the game to anybody, to the point where they're very comfortable with it, sure of it and confident."
Krueger played for the New Westminster Bruins and Calgary Wranglers of the WHL in 1978-79, then left for Germany and a playing career that spanned 12 seasons and landed him behind the bench in Austria. Five Austrian championships with VEU Feldkirch later, Krueger took over the Swiss program.
"When you're looking at challenges as a coach, the most important thing is that you have an opportunity to grow so you're motivated every day and excited about what you're doing," he said.
"The second thing, of course, is to make a difference. Here, it's going to be a combination of people management and teaching the technical and tactical basics of going to the next level. That's an exciting combination for Tom and me and Steve and Kelly."
"Team Life" was published in German and French, but never in English. Still, Krueger is confident his approach won't be lost in the translation with the Oilers when training camp opens Friday.
"We want this group to grow, to reach their potential as individuals and as a team,” Kruger said. "To do that, I think, it's quite clear the line that we need to go with the group here."
Renney, taking over a team that finished 33 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference at 27-47-8 under Pat Quinn
, is convinced Krueger is the right man at the right time.
"Look at his body of work," Renney said. "He was able to make his game in Switzerland make sense to his players. When you take an entire ice hockey federation and give it confidence, a chance to operate with some swagger, be a legitimate contender in world championships and Olympic games and put the fear of God into the big teams, you're doing something right.
"To be able to bring a lot of the North American game to Europe, yet still integrate the great game that is the international game, to me, that's ahead of the curve."
Bolstered by an infusion of youth that's likely to include 2010 first pick Taylor Hall
, 2008 first-rounder Jordan Eberle
and Magnus Paajarvi
, selected 10th in 2009, the Oilers are in full rebuild mode. Krueger has been there and done that.
"The opportunity at this moment and the type of work I've been doing lately has a similar feel to it," Krueger said. "As far as the challenge of taking a team that has high expectations for the future but needs to develop the youth, needs to definitely grow its drafted players, I'm excited about the timing and the situation with the youth. The timing is perfect."
Whether it's Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi, still-young players like Sam Gagner
and Andrew Cogliano
or prime-time pieces to Edmonton's puzzle like Tom Gilbert
, Ales Hemsky
, Dustin Penner
and Ryan Whitney
, Krueger believes he can get his message across.
"I don't ever see a player as a finished product, no matter how old he is. Your core motivation is you always want to improve, always want to get better."
-- Ralph Krueger
"I don't ever see a player as a finished product, no matter how old he is," he said. "Your core motivation is you always want to improve, always want to get better.
didn't play until he was 48 because he had a bad off-ice work ethic, you know? The guy always seemed to want to find a new way to beat the odds. It's those kind of people we need in a winning organization, people who continually go to the rink to improve. No matter what's changed around them, they remain on track. That's the sacrifice we have to make when we're outside the comfort zone."
Are the Oilers the easy option? No. The obvious one, given Krueger's coaching philosophy? It seems so.
"In the end, the knowledge is out there for us all," Krueger said. "The difference between the winners and the non-winners is who does it, who executes it. That's the challenge for us in the people we lead."