COLOGNE – There are days when former Swiss national team coach Ralph Krueger wonders why he can’t crack the NHL, and he is not the only benchmeister in Europe who thinks along those lines.
It’s been a decade since Ivan Hlinka and Alpo Suhonen were the first Europeans to have the title as head coach in the NHL.
Hlinka coached Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01 and was fired four games into the ’01-02 season. Suhonen lasted the 2000-01 season behind the Chicago Blackhawks bench but returned to Finland because of health reasons.
And while Hlinka and Suhonen were trailblazers, it could be another decade before a coach from this side of the Atlantic is offered the same opportunity.
It’s not as if NHL is completely snubbing Europe. After all there were two Europeans – both Swedes – serving as assistant coaches on NHL teams this season, Tommy Albelin in New Jersey and Ulf Samuelsson in Phoenix. St. Louis assistant general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, a Finn, is the only European front-office member among the league's 30 teams.
But you have to wonder how hard is it for a European to crack the code?
Obviously it seems most difficult, and doesn’t look for that to change anytime soon.
Brian Burke is manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he is also the GM of Team USA in the world tournament. He said there isn’t a bias against European coaches in NHL circles but it’s not easy to end up behind the bench.
“It is just the styles are so different on a big sheet and contact and physicality are such a vital part of our game and not here,” said Burke.
Finland GM Jari Kurri, a Hall of Fame inductee who was Wayne Gretzky’s right winger for years, feels the blending of the North American and European games is a plus for a European benchboss.
“There are a lot of good coaches in Europe, no question,” said Kurri. “It was like before with the goalie situation, the European goalie and they did not think he could play. I think the mentality is the same way with European coaches.”
“I compare it to a Swiss player trying to make the NHL. Until Mark Streit made it, they looked at players differently and now there are Swiss guys drafted by NHL teams every year. Same as Uwe Krupp in Germany. It was him and now there are guys at the NHL level or close from Germany.
“I think with coaches, it will be the same thing. Someone will have to break down the barrier and someone will have to think outside the box and I believe with the games coming together, it will happen.”
It’s not as if there is a shortage of door-breaking candidates.
Krueger is German-Canadian who has great success with the Swiss national team. His replacement, Sean Simpson, is a British-Canadian who has a blue-chip record as a head coach in Europe.
Then there is Larry Huras, a Canadian who coached SC Bern to a Swiss league title this season. It was his third Swiss league championship as a head coach.
And here at the 2010 World Championship, Slovakia is coached by Glen Hanlon, a Canadian who includes the Washington Capitals and the Belarus national team on his resume as a head coach.
How about Vyacheslav Bykov, head coach of Russia’s national team, the two-time defending world champions? He has coached in Switzerland and is fluent in French, which is a prerequisite in Montreal.
Don’t forget Slavomir Lener, who was an assistant coach for eight seasons in the NHL; or Arno Del Curto of the Swiss club Davos, who maybe the most successful European coach currently.
NHL teams go through coaches with regularity, and history has shown they follow an age-old formula. Either they promote from within – the assistant coach moves up – or they promote their minor-league coach, or they throw the dice and take a successful junior league coach and make him an NHL head coach.
Is that going to change anytime soon?
“I guess the next step is do you come over to Europe and hire an European coach and have him set right in?” said Dave Taylor, the ex-GM of the Los Angeles Kings. “I think most coaches like to transition a little bit as an assistant and work up, or have the reigns at the minor league level. That seems the more common route.
“Then you have ex-players (i.e. NHL players), and career coaches. There is no one proven path.”
NHL teams have talked to Krueger about becoming an assistant coach but that doesn’t interest him.
“I have been a head coach for 22 years and that is what I do and as long as I don’t get that opportunity, I will stay in Europe,” he said. “Some people say you have to go to the American league but I believe coaching is coaching and people are people.”
Krueger should not sit by the telephone waiting for Burke to call him.
“For him to go in and be a head coach in the NHL would be next to impossible. In the AHL, I do not know,” said Burke. “I don’t think they would have a choice. I think their options would be someone saying come coach our AHL team or come an assistant coach in the NHL or we are not interested. That would be my guess.”
While that seems to be the prevailing attitude, all it would take is to have someone think out of the box, to break with the norm.
“I hired Andy Murray in L.A. and took a lot of heat for it because people did not know who he was,” said Taylor. “He was seven years as NHL assistant, then Europe, and also Canada with the national team. And he was coaching high school (in the U.S.) when he was hired. We took all kinds heat for hiring a high school coach and it worked out OK.”
Germany coach Uwe Krupp and Slovakia GM Petr Bondra both were stars in the NHL, and they think the time is coming when you will find Europeans behind the bench of an NHL team.
“All you need is someone to give them a chance,” said Krupp.
“It is just a matter of a club giving him an opportunity and I do not see why not,’’ said Bondra.
There are only 30 teams in the NHL, and only 30 jobs as a head coach.
Krupp said relationships help.
“Remember it is an old boy’s club,” said Krupp.