Ralph Krueger is accustomed to public speaking. The Buffalo Sabres coach has learned how to hold a room, be it through decades of pregame speeches and postgame press conferences or through his work as a motivational speaker.
One twist he was not so familiar with until recently: speaking into a computer screen without being able to see the hundreds of faces listening on the other side. Such was the case when Krueger hosted an international coaching webinar in conjunction with the NHL Coaches Association' on March 25.
"You feel like you might be just a little bit nuts," Krueger said by phone from his home in Switzerland last week. "But you can never forget there's more than a thousand people, maybe, at the other end, so I got used to that."
The NHLCA initially rolled out its pilot Mentorship Program in February as a means for NHL coaches to help grow the game. Four webinars were held for an audience of a combined 200 coaches from the NCAA, USHL, ECHL, and AHL. A broader program was intended to be introduced in October.
When leagues around the world halted as a result of COVID-19, the NHLCA accelerated that timeline. Krueger - with experience coaching in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the NHL - was an ideal candidate to lead an international session.
Four-hundred links were distributed for the webinar, and Krueger says each link was then used by about 40 people. Miroslav Satan, the former Sabres forward who now serves as president of the Slovakian National Team, ensured that each of his program's coaches attended, for example.
Attendees included coaches from pro, college, junior, and international levels. Krueger estimates there were representatives from 15 countries in all.
"I enjoyed the process and the feedback has been really, really warm," he said. "They enjoyed the process. So, yeah, overall, it was a success. But the goal was really to give back to the coaching community."
The session comprised of a 45-minute presentation followed by a 45-minute question and answer period. Krueger's presentation covered leadership methods along with strategies to best prepare European players to transition to the NHL.
From the time he coached Edmonton in 2012-13 to his return to the NHL this season, Krueger has seen a Europeanization of North American hockey. What were once two distinct styles separated by the Atlantic have melded into a hybrid of sorts with an emphasis on skill.
"The interesting thing actually is that every single European nation is developing players for the National Hockey League in the end," Krueger said. "The goal and dream of every player in Europe is not to end their career in their own country, but actually to make the National Hockey League.
"So, that's the common thread, and I think that's why it's interesting for them to hear from an NHL coach because no matter what age you're coaching at here, that's what kids are dreaming about and that's what they're reaching for. It is a big adjustment."
Several questions were geared toward Krueger's tenure as chairman of Southampton of the English Premier League and how lessons learned as an executive in soccer were applicable once he returned to the NHL.
Krueger explained how he saw similarities in methods that could be used to keep elite athletes engaged through long, grinding seasons, and how his work with the sports science team in Southampton prepared him for his conversations with the performance staff in Buffalo.
Perhaps most interestingly, Krueger revealed how tactical philosophies in one sport might apply to another.
"It's crazy how many tactical situations - triangulation defensively, offensively being options on the ball, being options on the puck - how many things have been integrated into the principles that we're trying to bring into Buffalo," he said.
"My recommendation was that the coaches do open their minds to other sports whether it's basketball or soccer. … Games where groups move in a certain structured way, there is a lot to learn."
More so than the webinar itself, Krueger said the preparation allowed a chance to reflect on his first season with the Sabres.
"It helped me because I'm thinking about the 69 games to date in Buffalo," he said. "What have I actually learned and what is exactly the summation of what's gone on? I love doing these teaching processes because of the journey that takes you there and what it forces you to do in your mind to be able to be organized with your thoughts.
"… So, I learn tons when I get to do a teaching process like this. I mean, the webinar itself is just the final product but the journey to get there is always really exciting. And the questions were great, and I could feel the interest of the group and the passion that was coming across, and that was good."