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Zaugg: The legend of Krueger

How he created the “Yes we can” mentality long before Obama

21-04-09
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Ralph Krueger is behind the Swiss bench since 1998. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

BERNE – The 2009 IIHF World Championship marks Ralph Krueger's 12th time as the coach of Team Switzerland in this tournament. Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and Ralph Krueger at the helm of the Swiss national team.

Looking back, there are two moments that changed modern Swiss hockey history.

Moment One came in the summer of 1991, when a young man named Ralph Krueger decided to become a hockey coach. The Canadian-German double citizen was a good forward in the German first division from 1979 to 1991. He also played in 45 national team games, and twice represented Germany at the IIHF World Championship (1981 and 1986).

After his playing career ended, the Winnipeg native (born August 31, 1959) returned home to North America. He left hockey and started to work as a hotel manager. But one day in the summer of 1991, he waited for one of his friends who coached a local basketball team. "I was sitting in the stands and watched him training his team,” Krueger recalled. “And in the blink of an eye I realized, hey, I want to be a coach too."

He quit his job and flew over to Europe with no idea of how to find a job as a hockey coach.

Fortunately, Krueger had some friends. When he travelled through Switzerland, Germany and northern Italy, he could stay overnight with them. Often, other times, he spent the night in his car. He was always hoping to find a job somewhere.

And he was lucky: in Feldkirch, Austria, they fired coach Sascha Barniev and hired Ralph Krueger on November 13, 1991. At the time, the local media was unhappy about the hiring of a “nobody” for this famous team.

In Feldkirch, Krueger managed to survive a 15-game losing streak, and went on to build a dynasty. He won championships in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998, and also captured the European Hockey League (EHL) title in 1998. Overall, he coached Feldkirch for 436 games, and won 265.

Moment Two came in the fall of 1995, when Feldkirch played a pre-season game in Davos. Werner Kohler was, at that time, the president of HC Davos, and he watched the game. Feldkirch won by turning the tide in the last minutes of the game, and Kohler was so impressed by the charismatic Krueger that he never forgot him.

Kohler became president of the Swiss federation in the summer of 1996. Switzerland was slated to host the 1998 IIHF World Championship (in Zurich and Basle), and Kohler realized he needed a new coach to promote both the national team and the tournament. So he fired national team coach Simon Schenk after the 1997 B-Pool World Championship and hired Ralph Krueger. In the first season (1997-98), Krueger did the job part-time, continuing to coach Feldkirch, but it's been his full-time gig ever since the summer of 1998.

At the 1998 Worlds, Krueger coached Switzerland to the semi-finals. It was like a miracle for the home crowds. And for the first time in history, Switzerland won a World Championship game against the mighty Russians, defeating them 4-2.

Two years later, at the 2000 Worlds in St. Petersburg, Krueger further solidified his status as a national sports hero. Only by beating a Russian team that featured Pavel Bure and Alexei Yashin could Team Switzerland move on to the next round. Otherwise, the Swiss were destined for relegation play. But to overcome the mighty Russians in their own arena seemed almost impossible.

But Krueger beamed an SMS message to every Swiss player's mobile, saying that a win was possible. (The media later made a big story about this SMS motivation.) Krueger, in fact, created the "Yes we can” slogan long before Barack Obama. The Swiss beat Russia 3-2, and Krueger was God.

A few weeks later, the federation gave him a contract running through 2006 and made him the best-paid national team coach of all times and countries. Ever since then, Krueger has cost the Swiss federation about a million Swiss francs every year. He now has a contract with more or less the same conditions that runs through 2010.

But it’s a good deal for both parties. Before Krueger, the Swiss national team had no market value. Now, with Krueger, the national team is worth almost three million Swiss francs a year in advertising money for the federation.

Krueger is not merely a hockey coach. If we were to draw an analogy with Swiss hockey as the Christian world, the national team would be the Catholic Church and Krueger the Pope. No other coach in Switzerland – and that includes football – has his charisma and his power. He plays the media like a violin. He is an excellent communicator, and has a lot of talent as an actor and a storyteller. In fact, as a teenager, he won a story-telling contest back home in Canada.

Krueger has a knack for making everybody he talks with feel like the most important person in the world. If you're in a bad mood, talk to Krueger, and you'll feel like a master of the universe afterwards.

In 2001 he wrote a book called Teamlife, discussing his methods for handling problems and being successful. It became a bestseller. He has his own business as a motivational speaker. The big corporations shell out up to 30,000 Swiss francs for a two-hour speech.

As a coach, he truly rules Swiss hockey.

Only once was Krueger's job jeopardized. Switzerland flew off with high hopes to the 2002 Olympic tournament in Salt Lake City. But Krueger overestimated the offensive abilities of his team and lost versus France and Ukraine. The Swiss team did not reach the final round. So the media started a campaign against Krueger.

But Krueger, ever wise, returned home as a hero. He singled out two players, Reto von Arx and Marcel Jenni, stating the pair did not respect the rules of the team and were out at night, partying and drinking.

Krueger was never really able to prove how these two players could get out of the Olympic Village and find a party in Salt Lake City, the capital of the abstemious Mormons. And Jenni's roommate, future NHL goalie Martin Gerber, always said that Jenni was in the room when he went to bed and that Jenni was still there when he woke up in the morning.

But the media and the chief of the Swiss Olympic delegation favoured Krueger's account, and von Arx and Jenni were sent home from the Olympics in shame.

The media was happy, and had some banner headlines. Krueger was not under fire anymore. But Reto von Arx and Marcel Jenni, still among the best two-way Swiss forwards, are now lifelong enemies of Krueger, and will never return to the national team.

Since 2002, everybody knows that Krueger is untouchable. He runs the show. And after all, it's for the best of Swiss hockey.

Under Krueger, Swiss hockey has experienced the most stable period in its international history since its last medal, a bronze at the 1953 IIHF World Championship. He took over the team when Switzerland was promoted into the elite division simply because they were hosting the tournament. The Swiss have never been relegated under Krueger, and now sit seventh in the official IIHF World Rankings.

Of course, the success of Swiss hockey is not only due to Krueger's influence.

In the early 1990s, the Swiss Federation started a new junior development program with sports director Peter Zahner (now the GM of the ZSC Lions).

The Swiss players are still smaller and lighter than most of their opponents. But they have no fear, and they are smart and fast. They know they can beat the best teams, and this spirit now permeates the entire Swiss hockey culture, including the Swiss National League A. The best example of this "Yes we can" attitude was the inaugural Champions Hockey League title won by the ZSC Lions versus Russia's Metallurg Magnitogorsk. And during Krueger's reign, Swiss players have established themselves in the NHL, including the likes of Martin Gerber, Mark Streit and Jonas Hiller.

Krueger is a big part of this positive thinking. He's been the right coach at the right time. Over the years, he has influenced Swiss hockey on every level. He has coached the Swiss team in 13 major tournaments (11 Worlds, two Olympics), more than any other coach in Swiss hockey history dating back to 1908.

Better than any other coach, Krueger knows that Switzerland still lacks the individual stars who can be game-breakers in a World Championship or Olympic tournament. Only as a well-organized team can they survive. That’s why he is so focused on team-building, discipline, and defensive systems.

Frankly, the Swiss national team is one of the most boring teams to watch in the world of hockey. But it's also one of the best-organized defensively. That’s why the Swiss can bark and bite with the big dogs. Remember how they recently won a game against Canada at a major tournament for the first time in hockey history: the 2-0 shutout at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Being number seven in the world and making the quarterfinals almost every year is a big success for Swiss hockey, which has only 25,000 active players.

But after all these years, the media and the fans are not so happy anymore. Almost everybody forgets how Swiss hockey struggled in the years before Krueger. And because Krueger has everything under control, there are no more really juicy stories around the national team. No scandals. Everything works well.

That's boring for the media and the public. The public's opinion is that Switzerland should now move forward and win a medal.

But even making the semi-finals is almost impossible. And Krueger says that Switzerland can only contend for a medal when, for the first time, a Swiss forward has established himself in the NHL. Only at that point will the national team have the requisite game-breaker.

So Krueger is under pressure at the 2009 Worlds in Berne. His contract runs out after the 2010 Worlds. But there are at least two Swiss teams (SC Bern and HC Lugano) prepared to hire Krueger immediately after the WC 2010, and they are willing to play him a million Swiss francs a years.

Want to know how to become a millionaire as a hockey coach? Ask Ralph Krueger.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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