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Krueger on life, leadership and hockey

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton, AB - "There's nothing to invent when it comes to leadership. It's not about special people, either. It's about people that do special things."

That was Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Ralph Krueger's opening address at Wednesday's annual United Way/WorleyParsons Leadership Event at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Hundreds listened in on Krueger's awe-inspiring 20-minute presentation. Five core values critical to the success of a leader were listed and explained in great detail as real-world and NHL-driven examples were provided to support his message:

1. Motivation equals a purpose or dream. There's a need to set a purpose in the people whose lives you're leading or motivating. It's the ability to set destinations -- something outside their present grasp that gives them some purpose to giving their best.

"I didn't invent that," Krueger laughed.

2. Be a team-playing leader. Ask the right questions and include everyone in the process. "A lot of leaders don't," he said. "It's about always doing what's best for the team, rather than striving for popularity vs. respect."

3. Communication. "It's not enough to be thinking positively; but creating positive actions and getting people to do them is most important," Krueger said. "Truly listen to the people you lead, realizing you have two ears and one mouth. Give them a forum to express themselves. Until our team thinks the same, there's no point in playing hockey."

4. Be an energy-giver. Always present a good vibe and be supportive. Have a balance, have a plan. Never compromise quality, only reduce quantity. "I would much rather my team practices for 30 minutes at 100 percent, giving everything they have, than practicing for three hours at half speed."

5. Be yourself. "People want you to be real." Stop pretending you know everything, listen to others' input and value constructive criticism.

Ralph Krueger was named as the 11th head coach in Oilers history on June 27, 2012 (Photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC).

Krueger, 52, is entering his third season with the Oilers and will make his NHL head-coaching debut in the near future. Most recently in a lead role behind the bench, Krueger was the head coach of the Swiss National Team, helping the squad climb eight spots to seventh overall in the IIHF World Hockey Rankings. He also coached Switzerland to a sixth-place result at the 2010 Olympic Winter games in Vancouver.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba native is also a world-renowned public speaker who, among other assignments, participated at the World Economic Summit in Europe during last season's all-star break.

Krueger has always been a leader. But it wasn't one particular thing or person that guided him along this inspirational path -- it's been a collection of inspiration, highlighted by memorization and trial and error.

"It might sound a little bit corny, but I really love classical literature. Whether it's theatre or poetry, I was always inspired at a young age by works that had to do with good leaders and the way they thought and the way they operated," Krueger said. "I don't read as much anymore as I'd like to because of my job and the pace we're often under, but I would say it's been so many pieces of mentorship coming together. I've always been someone who accumulates things, so I'm able to memorize things and put them into little places in my mind.

"I'm always working on my package of leadership -- I never stop. There hasn't been one single thing that's inspired me to do something; the people that have led me have inspired me to try and be better. You have to have a love for your players and the people you're leading. I know that in my 23 years since '89 of leadership, that's never stopped. I'm always looking for ways to make it even better in a team environment -- even more powerful, even better teaching methods. In the end, it's probably the people you're leading that provide the most inspiration when you see you then have success."

Particularly as a head coach in pro sport, Krueger insists that a mentor needs to play a much larger role in his protégé's responsibilities. Sometimes a leader will need to step in as a mediator to resolve an issue, but the grander picture means teaching a better practice that encourages each player to step up and take a hands-on role in grooming themselves as a motivational tactician.

So in the Oilers locker room when the season eventually begins, Krueger's goal is to motivate over 20 bodies to step up in a leadership role.

En route to a Stanley Cup (and Krueger wasn't hesitant to bring it up the elephant in the room -- six years without a post-season game), the Oilers will need to buy in and be in it together, through the good times and the bad.

"I really believe that everybody needs to push each other in some way, shape or form and lead somebody," he said passionately. There are so many responsibilities for a team like this, the Edmonton Oilers. They're so important in the community and in the world, but they have to be conscious of that. I need people to help me be a better leader every day, be honest around me. That's why I've chosen Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger as my assistant coaches, because I know they're going to be honest and we're going to have an honest culture. Everybody can chip in somehow -- I like everybody to think we're leading this thing uphill and forward together."

With everyone on board to help guide the Oilers' ship, how important are letters? That question has come to the forefront recently given how Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog was recently named as the Avalanche's captain, making him the youngest player to ever sport the ‘C' in NHL history.

It's important that you have clear leadership and a voice in the room and good support around it, but more important for me is the culture of the whole group together. - Ralph Krueger

Fair to assume Taylor Hall, or maybe Jordan Eberle could be next in line in Edmonton? Krueger's in no rush, especially since he believes they're already such invested leaders, regardless of what is (and isn't) stitched on their sweaters.

"I don't place the same value on the letters that a lot of people do," he said. "The perception is, to me, a little overvalued. It's important that you have clear leadership and a voice in the room and good support around it, but more important for me is the culture of the whole group together. That person shouldn't be left alone and be responsible to be the voice. I think everybody needs to step up to the plate, especially during tough times when leadership is most requested.

"Nobody really cares or speaks about leadership in good times because they take it for granted; but it's there, it's happening, boy, big time. People like to focus on the coach, on the captain or GM -- but in the end, it's all of us together in those tough times to move everything in the right direction."

Since being named as the 11th head coach in Oilers history on June 27, Krueger's message has been clear. What the Oilers will be striving for is excellence -- unwavering, high-quality practice habits and a detail-oriented agenda of which winning will become a byproduct. His message was the same Wednesday night, echoing that leaders aren't necessarily the rich and the famous -- they're the philanthropists that have earned those rewards because of the special things they've done to bring and motivate groups to their potential.

In other words, the byproducts of great leadership. It's something Krueger lives by.

"I believe good things that make you comfortable give you freedom," he said. "But you should never do anything because of that. It has to be a byproduct, and that will be our order as coaches. First it's going to be about working on this and this and this, and that's (excellence/winning) going to come over time.

"I've never seen it not happen.

"That's what I believe in and that's what the Edmonton Oilers will be working toward."

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick

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