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Shared vision, belief in core brought Krueger to Buffalo

"I think above all, this group is ready to become a contender," new coach says.

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Jason Botterill still recalls being in stands of Torino Esposizioni in Turin, Italy on Feb. 18, 2006. 

Botterill attended the Olympic Games that winter to watch his sister, Jennifer, represent Canada in the women's tournament. But he was struck by a shocking upset on the men's side, a 2-0 victory for Switzerland over Canada in the preliminary round. 

The hockey world is a small one. The man running the Switzerland bench that day was Ralph Krueger, who three decades prior sat as a student in Cal Botterill's fifth-grade classroom at St. John's Ravenscourt in Winnipeg. On Wednesday, Cal's son hired Krueger as the 19th coach of the Buffalo Sabres. 

No, this isn't some reunion of long-lost friends - Jason Botterill was born 17 years after Krueger and never actually knew him growing up. But it is a tale of similar origins. 

For all the impressive bullets on Krueger's diverse resume - his work with the World Economic Forum and his five years as chairman of Southampton Football Club in the English Premier League included - he, like Botterill, had a passion for hockey that was born in Winnipeg and brought him to Buffalo.

"That's what makes us excited, is that he wanted to come here, and he wanted to be part of our group here," Botterill said. "As much as he has a unique resume, you look at it, he is a kid from Manitoba who loves the game of hockey."

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Botterill first reached out to Krueger on the advice of his former general manager, Jim Rutherford, during the coaching search that eventually led to Phil Housley's hiring in 2017. Krueger had left a strong impression while working with Rutherford as an advisor with the Carolina Hurricanes for five seasons. 

Krueger was committed to remaining in his position with Southampton, so the talks never went too far. But the chemistry was already apparent, and it remained that way when Botterill reached out again last month. This time, Krueger had his eye on a return to hockey. 

Conversations with Botterill revealed that they saw eye-to-eye on most aspects of how an organization should be run, from an aggressive, up-tempo style on the ice to the necessary lines of communication off it. Though he had other offers to get back into the sport, the natural flow of those discussions drew him toward Buffalo. 

"There was nothing that lit my fire as much as my conversations with Jason," Krueger said via a conference call. "I could just feel the coaching magnet pulling me back."

Video: Ralph Krueger on The Instigators

The feeling was mutual. Botterill conducted an extensive search with assistant general managers Steve Greeley and Randy Sexton, vetting candidates with all types of resumes. Their discussions kept bringing them back to Krueger, until they came to a verbal agreement to bring him to Buffalo last week. 

So, what should you know about the new coach of the Sabres? If his first session with the local media was any indication, it's that he believes in the market and the personnel of the team he's joining. 

Krueger has earned a reputation as "the most interesting man in hockey" due to his diverse background, which has its roots with a dynastic run in Austrian hockey and more than a decade behind the bench for the Swiss national team. His vetting process for this job lived up to that title. 

During a weekend stay in Buffalo in late April, Krueger spent roughly nine hours over two days walking the streets of Buffalo. He watched two NHL playoff games in that time, switching bars between periods and conversing with unsuspecting fans along the way. 

"We matter in Buffalo, and that matters to me as a head coach," he said. "I want that pressure; I want that responsibility if I'm going to work in an environment. We're an important part of what Buffalo is all about. When I went for my walk, I was able to tap in.

"… It was quite interesting. I'd sit beside Sabres fans and have conversations and have conversations that I won't be able to have with them now. It was very enlightening. I felt the spirit of the city."

The weekend sold Krueger on the city. Botterill, together with Terry and Kim Pegula, sold him on the vision of the organization. The rest comes down to the roster, which raises another idea that Krueger and Botterill share: This is no rebuilding project, and expectations should be high right away. 

Video: Jason Botterill Press Conference (5/15/19)

"I think above all, this group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night," Krueger said. "I'm confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly. I like the way Jason has been putting this team together and the way he thinks. 

"He understands the necessity of being strong with and without the puck and developing a team game that's dynamic and allows this core group of players to develop and show their skill but at the same time find the discipline as a group to defend properly.

"That will be high on our agendas to put that game plan in place quite quickly, to become a contender and competitor right into April. That's where we want to be hanging around and I'm confident we can get there."

The next steps will take place next week, when Botterill and Krueger reconvene at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. There, the new coach will meet face-to-face with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, both of whom are participating in the tournament. 

From that point, Krueger will begin discussions with the rest of his players - including pending free agent Jeff Skinner - with a focus on listening to their opinions on where they see opportunities for improvement. 

Thomas Vanek, who played under Krueger at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, said he was the best motivator he's ever dealt with during an appearance on The Instigators on Wednesday morning. 

"It took us a few days to adjust to him and his philosophy or whatever," Vanek said. "But after being around him with the whole team setting for three or four days, we were like, 'Holy crap. This guy is unbelievable.'

"He spent time with each and every one. It's not just make-believe that he cares about you. After two days of being around him - not even two days, 10 minutes - you know he cares about you."

The goal, Krueger said, is creating a unified but demanding culture in which the work done off the ice will make for a connected product on it. The task begins right away.

"I'm at heart, of course, an optimistic coach and an optimistic person," he said. "But I don't believe I'm a dreamer. I believe I'm a realist, and I'm looking at what I see here. I know we're going to work hard through the summer to add some pieces and to make some adjustments on the roster. 

"Only time will tell. I don't want to make any big premises here. Only one that I will make, and that is I will do everything in my power to find out what this group is made of very quickly and to get us into hat competitive state for much longer than the team was able to get into last season."

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