Ralph Krueger is unique to hockey.
How many people go from behind an NHL bench to chairman of soccer club Southampton FC of the Barclays Premier League?
Before the 56-year-old native of Steinbach, Manitoba was asked to run the elite soccer team, currently seventh in the 20-team premiership, he won a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as an assistant coach with Canada. Previous to that he spent 19 seasons coaching in Austria and Switzerland, and three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, including the 2012-13 season as coach.
His son Justin Krueger, a former Carolina Hurricanes draft pick who was born in Germany when Ralph was finishing his pro career, plays for Bern SC in National League A, Switzerland’s top professional league.
Justin, 29, also has played for Germany in the past six IIHF World Championships, which has allowed Ralph time to keep abreast of the international game.
That knowledge will be tested at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where Krueger will coach Team Europe. That team will consist of players from outside the four countries with entries in the tournament (Russia, Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic).
Team Europe will be in Group A, along with Team Canada, Team USA and Team Czech Republic. Group B will consist of Team Russia, Team Finland, Team Sweden and Team North America, comprised of the top North American players who will be 23-years-old or younger as of Oct. 1, 2016.
The 17-day World Cup of Hockey will take place at Air Canada Centre in Toronto from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1. All games will be televised on ESPN in the United States, and Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada.
Krueger took time out from his office at St. Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, England to discuss the World Cup of Hockey and how he ended up where he is today.
How did you find out you were going to be the coach of Team Europe for the World Cup?
“[German Ice Hockey Federation president] Franz Reindl, who was named the team leader, called to ask me. But he had to check it out first with the NHL and I had to check it out with my owner [Katharina Liebherr] at Southampton. Otherwise I was definitely interested. She said yes and here I am.”
When you were appointed chairman at Southampton in March 2014, did you think your hockey days were done?
“Generally I have tried to stop looking too far into my future. But I didn’t think my hockey days were over by doing what I was doing at Southampton. It began as what was supposed to be a short-term fix. But it has turned into a pretty permanent position. I stayed connected to hockey through the NHL friends I have and through my international hockey contacts. I got the call to help out the Canadian Olympic team [in 2014], so I wasn’t that far removed. I wasn’t sure though. But when this call came, I thought it was the absolute perfect situation to get back in.”
You don’t see many people going from behind an NHL bench to running an English Premier League team. Can you explain how your current job presented itself?
“I’ve been leading a parallel life since 1994. I’ve run a company called TeamLife, which works together with corporations and leaders in corporate environments in Europe. That business has been running parallel to my coaching career.
“Combined with my sports, but more with my leadership work that I’ve been doing, got me onto the radar at Southampton. Once I met the owner, a young Swiss woman who was 36 at the time and had inherited the team from her father, we just connected right away philosophically and culturally. She asked me to rebuild and reboot the culture at Southampton. We put in a North American sports structure, which is rare in the Premier League. There’s a GM, head coach and scouting staff. We did it very quickly there and so I’m really comfortable in that position.”
Can you explain your role with Southampton?
“My title is chairman. I’m actually the chairman of the board. We have a very small board; it’s the owner, myself and the CEO, and I’m responsible to the owner. But on a day-to-day basis I really just drive the culture and really coaching the executive level. I’m in touch with the coach but I stay out of the [soccer] aspects and stay more on the visionary side and the team development side.”
How will you approach building the roster for Team Europe with so much on your plate right now?
“My biggest advantage is that because of coaching Switzerland’s national team for 13 years is I know these players. Even the young ones like a Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg or a Tobias Rieder and Mikkel Boedker in Arizona or a Nino Niederreiter in Minnesota. So I know all the players really well and we’ve built a strong recruitment team that will be announced next week that will scout the NHL. I will have a strong video coach and a strong coaching staff with NHL experience.
“We don’t have a deep pool of players to choose from. We maybe have 12 candidates on defense, seven [goaltenders] and about 22 forwards. So when you’re looking to build a team of 23 we don’t have the depth of a Canada or United States. But we have quality there.
“Because I live in England, my free time is when the NHL games are on, so I will be able to watch games. And I will get clips of individual players too.”
How will your Canadian Olympic experience help?
“I went through the best possible coaching clinic in spending the year with Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock. What better environment? And I’m pleased to be able to use that knowledge.
“The five of us had one of the best environments and shared information. Team Canada provided such a basis of intellectual capital. I’m excited to put that to use. It would have been wasted if I didn’t get this opportunity.”