NUREMBERG – Ten years ago, German-Canadian Ralph Krueger had a year he’ll never forget. Not only for the fourth place at the 1998 IIHF World Championship in his first season with the Swiss national team. A few weeks earlier, he won the European Hockey League, coaching VEU Feldkirch, a team from a 32,000-people town in Austria on the border to Switzerland – arguable the biggest upset ever in European club hockey.
Today, it seems like the EHL championship wasn’t won a decade ago, but in an earlier century. Following the win, Feldkirch couldn’t afford to continue investing in top players and coaches. It was hurt by bankruptcy and relegation, and is currently playing in the second-tier league.
On August 30, the nearly-complete 1998 team of VEU Feldkirch were re-united, celebrating the accomplishment from a decade ago, and they also won a legends game against the “Bundesliga legends”, 4-2, in front of 4,400 fans.
In all the years of the old European Cup, the EHL and the European Champions Cup, winners came from the four major European hockey countries. VEU Feldkirch in 1998 was the big exception.
They won the EHL during an era when they dominated the Austrian league with five consecutive championships. To win the forerunner of the Champions Hockey League, Feldkirch had to beat teams like SC Bern, HPK Hämeenlinna, Vsetin, and, in the final, Dynamo Moscow.
IIHF.com spoke with Ralph Krueger about the 1998 miracle and also about the future of European club hockey.Looking back at it ten years later - how could this happen?
It was even more surprising as we played the whole tournament with 16 skaters and two goalies. We had this slim roster in the Austrian league, the Alpenliga and the ten EHL games. The team was unbelievably tight. We worked to achieve this goal and we were as close to perfection as we could. Dynamo Moscow in the final had two lines of NHL calibre. We just believed that we could win it and we worked hard on it.How was the 10-year anniversary?
It was extremely emotional. It was probably the biggest surprise in European club hockey. You can still feel it ten years later with all the fans, players and politicians joining in. Every player except three was there and those three simply couldn’t come. It was amazing. The anniversary game between the 1998 team and a legends team was sold out and the tent where we held the celebrations was packed. It was great to relive that spirit.And your former super-star and assistant coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, nowadays Swedish national team coach, was your player again.
Yes, he came back to the ice and also Thomas Rundqvist (sports director of Sweden’s Färjestads BK) was there.Can you imagine that a “Cinderella-team” would be able to win the Champions Hockey League?
Of course! That’s the great thing about sport. All 12 teams can win but there will be favourites and underdogs as usual.You have been the head coach of the Swiss national team for more than ten years now. Don’t you miss club hockey?
No, I take one job at the time. At the moment, I couldn’t imagine it. I first have to run with the Swiss national team and later we can look what’s the best for me and my family. But never say “never”.Which teams do you think are the favourites to win the inaugural Champions Hockey League?
On paper, I would say the Russian teams are favourites. When I look how seriously the teams are taking it, everyone could win, especially with this format with groups of three teams and head-to-head games in the semi-finals and final. There’s so much passion for this league. Everyone wants to be in. It’s the first real European championship since the EHL and the first time there will be a real European champion who fought all season long for it.You’re an advisor to Ovation, the marketing agent of the Champions Hockey League. What kind of advice can you provide?
I met the company’s CEO Craig Thompson coincidentally and I’m an advisor to him and Ovation as a hockey insider. They’re experts in marketing and sales on a high level. I advise them about hockey-specific things, processes in hockey, equipment etc. Then I have my international experience as a club and national team coach. I hope I can contribute.Before the Group Stage starts, the Victoria Cup will be played in Bern. What do you think about that event?
It’s like a kick-off prior to the CHL with the New York Rangers and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. It will be a big game. The Victoria Cup will serve as an incentive for future CHL winners and I hope that the Stanley Cup winner will be the opponent in the future. That would be the crowning. But this is already a first step to a world club championship.Do you believe that it has all the rivalry ingredients to become a classic?
It definitely throws you back to the ’72 Canada vs. Soviets rivalry that was one of the greatest cross-ocean clashes any sport ever had. You don’t have this in other American sports like football, baseball or basketball because the Americans are so dominant. This game will bring back old memories. How seriously do you think that the New York Rangers will approach this?
The Rangers will take it seriously because of their coach. Tom Renney was coaching the Canadian national team for many years and he knows the international spirit. He will decide how ready his team will be.While the Champions Hockey League is due to start, other organisations (KHL, NHL) announced plans to build a league or expand with a division to major European cities. What do you think about the different approaches and ideas on European club hockey?
The Champions Hockey League is definitely the best option for hockey to move closer to the NHL. It represents all Europe, it’s ready and it’s very professionally marketed. It’s the only place where you can become the European champion. This you can’t be when you play in the KHL. To win the CHL is the biggest prize in European club hockey. If anything can bring the North American and European games closer to each other, it will happen through the Champions Hockey League. The KHL is a good league; they brought in teams from the old Soviet countries. For Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan it’s good to have a club team on that level. But for Western European teams, it’s still the best to play in their countries that all have high-quality domestic leagues. All hockey fans like the historic, national rivalries. And no, I don’t think that Europe is ready for an NHL European division.Next year, there will be more teams and countries involved in the Champions Hockey League. Do you think we could see another Feldkirch?
There could emerge teams from lesser leagues who are very Europe-oriented. Right now, I see only one organisation outside the top-seven who are like that and that’s Red Bull Salzburg. But right now, I don’t think any of those teams could make it to the Group Stage with the Top-12. Even with the KHL teams from Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, we don’t really know how strong they are.
Link: Video recap of the Feldkirch vs. Dynamo Moscow finalThe reunified 1998 VEU Feldkirch team at the 10-year anniversary. Photo: Marc Walser