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Team Europe

Team Europe coach familiar with Mike Babcock

Ralph Krueger may have hidden advantage against Team Canada in World Cup final

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

TORONTO -- Earlier in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, when Team Canada was getting ready to face Team Europe for the first time in the preliminary round, coach Mike Babcock made a little joke.

Babcock doesn't joke around with the media very often, but he did this time, because the situation he was facing was admittedly funny.

Team Europe is coached by Ralph Krueger, who was on Babcock's staff during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, helping Canada learn the nuances of playing hockey on the big international ice surface and filling an important role in Canada winning the gold medal.

So as Babcock and Krueger were getting set to play each other, Babcock made the joke.

"Shouldn't have had him in Sochi," Babcock said, "that was a mistake."

Now that Krueger's Team Europe has reached the World Cup final against Babcock's Team Canada after defeating Team Sweden 3-2 in overtime in the semifinal Sunday, that little joke takes on some meaning.

Not because Babcock now wishes he never brought Krueger to Sochi, that's simply not the case, but because there are few coaches alive who know how Babcock thinks in these tournaments better than Krueger.

"He was a big part of what happened in Sochi," said Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong, who was an assistant to Steve Yzerman in Sochi. "He knows. He sat in. Obviously was part of every coaching meeting, was part of how we were going to beat the European teams. Now he's got a collection of the European players.

"He understands how Mike operates. He understands when we were putting that Sochi group together, when Steve Yzerman was putting that Sochi group together, understanding what had success on small ice in Vancouver. So he listened to those meetings on what we thought the difference was, and certainly he's fully aware of how Mike operates. But ultimately coaching is very important, but the players on the ice get the job done or they don't get the job done."

Krueger remembered how Babcock called him 12 hours after the Edmonton Oilers fired him as their coach on June 8, 2013, to offer him a job as a consultant on the Canada's coaching staff, basically serving as a big ice expert thanks to his years of international hockey experience.

Some of that experience came from coaching Switzerland's national team at the 2006 Turin Olympics, a team that included current Team Europe defenseman Mark Streit and one that defeated Canada 2-0 in group play, an upset that would at least be comparable to Team Europe taking down Team Canada in the best-of-3 World Cup final, which begins Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Krueger's knowledge earned him a chance to go through the Olympic process with Babcock, participating in meetings starting at the 2013 NHL Draft on June 30, 2013, right up through the Sochi Games in February of 2014.

Krueger said he only knew Babcock "peripherally" before he began working with him, but that quickly changed at the Olympics.

"After that it was really intense actually," he said. "We would run together. We would speak about hockey nonstop together, and it was the best coaching clinic I could go through with Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Mike Babcock. From the draft in [Newark] right through the Olympic Games, I was with them.

"The only thing that was sad about it was I didn't know where I was going to use it because I was in football, and so that learning process with Mike and his staff is really a lot of what I brought into Team Europe."

Now Krueger is going to use what he learned in an attempt to defeat his mentor, as daunting a challenge as that might be, and Babcock is clearly not going to take his former protégé lightly.

"[Team Europe] got better every day, Ralph and his staff have done a good job, the players have done a good job, they play well without the puck and the goaltending played real good [Sunday]," Babcock said. "I think they're a real good team and obviously we're going to have a test. They've earned the right to be here by doing things right. They're no different than us."

That is true in more ways than Babcock probably knows.

Krueger's team has evolved from one that began its pretournament schedule without an identity into one that can smother opponents with its structure.

Video: Tatar's OT winner lifts Europe over Sweden 3-2

Forward Frans Nielsen conceded Sunday that Team Europe plays a trapping style, something few NHL players are ever willing to admit. Team Europe does so because that was what gave it the best opportunity to win, and it was something Krueger identified early on and that his players have embraced.

"I don't think we've been one of the best teams in the tournament," Nielsen said, "but I think we've been one of the smartest."

A player can't really give his coach much higher praise than that, and now Krueger gets to set his sights on Babcock's juggernaut, Team Canada.

Defeating that team once would be difficult enough. Twice in three games seems nearly impossible.

But taking players from eight different countries and bringing them together to form a cohesive unit in the span of a few weeks and having that team reach the final of a best-on-best international tournament would have seemed pretty unlikely at the beginning of this month also.

Krueger and Team Europe have done that.

Krueger felt very comfortable answering questions about Babcock Sunday, recounting their time together in Sochi and how they are both avid water skiers who compare their results whenever they see each other.

But when he was asked if he knew Babcock's weaknesses, Krueger tried to deflect the question, and wasn't nearly as chatty about it.

"We've got to talk about hockey now?" he asked with a smile. "There's opportunity there for us that we're going to try and find."

Should Krueger manage to find it, Babcock will know who to blame.

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