“Hard work, not a miracle”

Uwe Krupp’s joy on the ice, and suffering away from the rink

22-05-10
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Uwe Krupp fights for a medal at the 2010 IIHF World Championship. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

COLOGNE – German national team coach Uwe Krupp has not always had a good time in the last few months. But after the 1-0 quarterfinal victory over archrival Switzerland, he had reason to smile. It was a victory he also dedicated to his wife, who was stricken with breast cancer recently.

After finishing 15th at last year’s World Championship and not winning a game the Olympics, Krupp’s team wasn’t exactly favoured pre-tournament to be playing for a medal this weekend in Cologne. Some fans, clubs and the media asked for a change behind the bench. But now everything is different.

And at post-game press conferences, Krupp hasn’t had to defend himself as usual. Instead, he’s been able to reply to the sometimes offensive questions of the German media with a touch of naughtiness and gratification.

Krupp has all reason to be all smiles when it comes to his team’s performance. The last time Germany won a medal was the bronze at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. The last time Germany was among the top four nations in the IIHF World Championship was in 1953 in Zurich and Basle, Switzerland. But that tournament had just three teams at the end, as Canada and the U.S. did not take part, and Czechoslovakia withdrew after playing four out of its six scheduled games following the death of President Klement Gottwald. Germany’s last big finish prior to that was at the 1938 Worlds in Prague, where it came fourth in a 14-team tournament.

And now, one year after a dismal performance in Berne, Germany is succeeding at home. Beating traditional rival Switzerland in the quarterfinal was emotional both during and after the game. With Philip Gogulla’s first goal of the tournament and a 41-save shutout by goalie Dennis Endras, Germany managed to reach the semis.

“We were prepared for a game against a team would put pressure on our defence,” Krupp said. “With tough defence and good goaltending we were able to stand the storm. This was a highly emotional game. It was not just two teams playing for a berth in the semi-finals. It was Germany vs. Switzerland.”

He also reacted to the emotions that spilled overboard at the end of the game: “There are lots of emotions. Every battle is fought hard. These players have known one another since they were under-16 players. Sometimes it swings this way, sometimes that way. Hockey is a game of emotions, and the players, coaches and fans love this game.”

Has Germany changed that much compared to last year? No, says Krupp.

What the Germans have done is play their best with the limited potential of a nation that sits 12th in the IIHF World Ranking. Germany has probably had the best defensive performance of all the teams at this year’s tournament. It’s not only because the system prevents the players from taking too many risks, but also because the coaching staff has found a way to keep games close while also being ready to go on the counterattack. Ironically, this style resembles the hockey its defeated quarterfinal rival Switzerland played during the Ralph Krueger era for most of the last 13 years.

“It’s not just a miracle or coincidence,” said Krupp. “It’s about a great performance and hard work. We have worked hard for this moment. In the past we were not always rewarded. This time we were. We have always had to walk this fine line between the Relegation Round, the Qualification Round, and sometimes even the quarterfinals. That hasn’t changed. But the players have overachieved with the support of the fans. History shows that German teams play well with home-ice advantage. The football and handball teams have shown that in the last few years when playing as a host nation, and this time we’re the story. It’s a story that can always happen in sport, and the timing couldn’t be better for us.”

The home-ice advantage is certainly a factor. Ever since starting the tournament with a bang, a 2-1 victory in overtime against Team USA in front of 77,803 fans in Gelsenkirchen, the country has been behind the German hockey team.

They have not only been getting support from sport fans, but also from sport associations. Handball national team coach Heiner Brand supports the team in the arena and as an official ambassador of the 2010 Worlds, despite the fact that hockey and handball usually fight for the position as the number-one indoor sport in Germany.

“The handballers follow German hockey, and they said, 'When the World Championship is on home ice it will be a great thing for you,'” Krupp said. “The football federation did the same, and this motivation helped us.”

Seeing Krupp all smiles while standing in front of journalists after games isn’t typical. This year, it’s different. And still, it’s not a self-explanatory phenomenon, because Krupp isn’t only fighting for a medal. He has another fight in his private life at his other home.

It hasn’t been easy for him to have his family in North America (in California, while Björn, one of his sons, plays for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League) and also be Germany’s national team coach. Due to pressure after the disappointing 2009 Worlds and Germany’s heightened interested in this year’s tournament as the host nation, Krupp moved back, alone, to his native Cologne for almost the entire hockey season.

About five weeks before the beginning of the World Championship, his American wife Valerie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Krupp flew back to the States, and was thinking about resigning just before the big event. But the Krupps decided that it would be best to continue everything as planned, rather than putting the spotlight on this health situation. Valerie basically sent her sorrowful husband back to do his job, and she’s been following the games of the German team from far away.

“If somebody gets sick and you just focus on the illness, it gives the illness too much power, and we wanted to live in a normal state,” Krupp said.

The tumour was removed in the first operation, and therapy has begun with doctors arranged through the NHL Players’ Association.

“She is a fighter,” said Krupp, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. “If I had felt she needed me in California, I would have stayed. We’re trying to continue our life as normally as possible.”

Krupp’s future is open. He said he doesn’t want to decide whether to re-sign as the national team coach or not before the World Championship is over. He could stay or he could get a contract in the German league. But there are rumours in the German media that he will continue his career in North America, maybe as an assistant coach in the NHL, or as a head coach in the AHL.

“I don’t know yet,” Krupp said about his future.

In any case, what lies in his imminent future is the semi-final game against Russia.

“We have a good chance to win a medal in the tournament, and we don’t want to stray from this path,” Krupp told IIHF.com. “We have a tough opponent in Russia, and we’ll try to play our game with the same attitude and passion. We kept pretty close to Russia when we played them last week [a 3-2 loss], and with great team work you can keep up against such a team. We will try everything with the help of our fans and the country.”

No matter whether the Germans win or receive a lesson from the Russians, the players can be proud of what they have achieved on home ice. And Krupp’s biggest wish is that this will help promote the sport in the future.

“We wanted to have positive headlines with the World Championship in order to gain fans who’ll watch German league hockey, and we also want to attract boys and girls to play hockey,” Krupp said. “And especially from the Swiss, we can learn much when it comes to promoting hockey and developing players.”

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