Skip to main content
World Cup of Hockey

Ralph Krueger 'most interesting man in the world'

Team Europe coach for World Cup seemingly has done it all

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO - The energy is palpable, rolling off him in waves. Sitting still seems a chore, and his hands fly forward to emphasize a point. He has mentioned taking off his skates, but there they are, still on his feet, and his pitch rises and excitement builds.

Ralph Krueger is explaining who he is and why he is and the words jump out of his mouth. It will later become clear that this is not an aberration. This is Krueger, the coach of Team Europe for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, and the energy is somehow constant, bolstering his ability to run a business, a Premier League soccer team, and now a hockey team formed of players from eight countries. 

This truth became crystal clear to Martin Semmens, the chief strategy officer for Southampton F.C., in the middle of a board meeting.

"Our new commercial director started and it was his first board meeting and, within an hour, Ralph was doing press-ups on the floor kind of out of excitement and motivation as to the stuff we were talking about," Semmens said. "Although it was a slightly comical moment, it summed up to me what it's all about, which is having that level of motivation and coaching skills and someone who understands what teamwork's about and how you build a team to achieve stuff. Whether it's a sports team or a business, it's very effective."

The fact Krueger was ever in that board room, ever doing those push-ups, seems a strange turn for a man who spent his life in hockey. He was never really meant to run that soccer team - or, rather, football - as the chairman of Southampton in the Premier League.

That came down to a phone call out of the blue.

But in other ways he had moved toward it, his interests varied and distinctive, building out a leadership resume from his playing days to his coaching days, resulting in a book and a motivational speaking career, which led to a brush with the family of Katharina Liebherr, who would go on to inherit Southampton from her father, who would make that phone call that would later lead Krueger to one of the most prestigious positions in one of the most prestigious leagues in the world.

And you wonder why his assistant at the World Cup and current Winnipeg Jets coach, Paul Maurice, calls him, "The most interesting man in the world. That's what he's going by now. I saw that on one of the articles, so I think he gets a new tag.

"And rightfully so."

****

The beginnings were, perhaps, more conventional. Krueger, 57, played professional hockey in Germany, coached in Austria, and became the coach of Switzerland's national team. In the meantime, he had written a book (in German) about leadership, and started a motivational speaking and leadership company called TeamLife in 1994, which he has set aside for the year as he devotes his spare time to Team Europe.

It was, he said, because he was "frightened about my survival as a coach."

He probably shouldn't have been.

He joined the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant in 2010-11, and was eventually promoted to coach in 2012-13, though that only lasted for a year.

But he already had set himself on the path away from the traditional, filtering his experiences and his interests into what he called a "split life," altering what might have otherwise been the normal nomadic life of any coach. The leadership work - "really, really practical, non-theoretical," as Krueger described it - led to an invitation to participate in the World Economic Forum, joining a panel of 16 as the only non-intellectual working on new models of leadership. And the leadership led to the Liebherr family, which had had him speak five or six years earlier.

And that, well, that led to the chance to take on an entirely new sport in an entirely new role. That call came in October 2013, while working with Canada to prepare for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He was focused on that role at the time, on pre-scouting and preparing, the only member of the staff to be fully immersed in the project.

Then came the invitation to work with Southampton, approached to figure out a "leadership crisis" at the club. Then came the official job offer, two weeks before the Olympics, to continue the relationship, to become the chairman, to change the culture, to motivate the company to become different, to utilize its limited resources more effectively, to be better.

"When they were searching, they were looking for a German-speaking, English-speaking, sports personality who had shown leadership qualities in building a culture and they didn't care that I didn't come from football at all," Krueger said.

In fact, that might have been an added bonus, what Semmens called "an intelligent naivete."

Video: Ralph Krueger on the mentality of Team Europe

Which is to say the less he knew about football, the better. Or, in other words, what would appear to outsiders as perhaps Krueger's greatest weakness in taking on the chairmanship of Southampton looked to those inside the organization like his greatest strength.

It was, instead, about the ability to work with and motivate people, to put them in the right places with exactly what they need to have to achieve what needs to be achieved. It's about understanding how to create that environment, and then creating it.

"He's able to sit there and say, well, I don't understand the exact formations of how you play and therefore I'm not going to get into that conversation, but I do understand how to lead sports organizations and I do understand what it feels like to be the coach of a Premier League football team because I've done that job in a different sport," Semmens said.

"That was the bit that I could see would work, because he had the ability and the history. Leadership was what the club needed, but also the credibility, the understanding, and the length of knowledge in sport - there's no way you can ever replicate 25 years coaching and leading in sport. There's no training course you can go on that can give you that experience."

Of course, there also was no preparation for making the switch.

"Boom, suddenly I was in the biggest league in the world, which was pretty intimidating for a period of time," Krueger said. "But I felt at home also really quickly in my role."

Still, it was different. It was overwhelming.

"It was like, what are you doing, Ralph?" Krueger said. "Like, budgets coming up to $200 million? How do you live with that? What we did was we started with nothing, we built a new management team, we got rid of everybody. There was zero board, zero executive board, everything has been rebuilt."

Last season, Southampton finished sixth in the league, their highest-ever finish in the Premier League era.

****

Krueger wasn't sure what would happen when he returned to coaching hockey, to taking on this new-old challenge with Team Europe. He hadn't planned a drill in three years. But he needn't have worried. The switch has been flipped back on, the proverbial riding a bike, and Krueger isn't the only one who is pleased.

"There's an enthusiasm about him that's invigorating," Maurice said. "It's exciting to be around somebody that bright with that much energy."

Though he wouldn't have believed it, he can see where Krueger is coming from when he calls himself not an X's and O's guy, having experienced his interest in people, in human interaction, in figuring out how to get the most out of everyone and every situation, in taking the long-term view that often gets lost for NHL coaches.

"Ralph's an open book," Maurice said. "For that it's been a completely one-sided enjoyable experience for me. I've tried to - 'steal everything I can' isn't the right word because he's offered it up. He's just great in terms of sharing his ideas about the game. I told him, hey, I'm stealing that, I'm stealing that. There's some thievery going on."

Semmens, for his part, is flying to Toronto to finally check out this whole ice hockey thing. He had seen Krueger for the past couple of years, worked with him daily at Southampton, but he didn't really know this other side. So, as he said recently with a verbal shrug, "Well, I just thought if he's going to do this thing, then I ought to come and check it out and get my head around it."

It might be his last chance.

With the exposure to this new road, to the heights of the chairmanship, Krueger isn't sure if he'll ever go back to coaching after the World Cup is over. This could be it for him. He hadn't initially seen the move as giving up on hockey, as forsaking the sport that had gotten him to this point.

"I'm chairman/president now, much more involved with the corporate arm than a president would be in sports in North America," Krueger said. "So I'm de facto owner in my role. And that is something where your process is so much more global, big picture, patient with the small steps, compared to the world I came from. So this is an education for me that can take me back to hockey if I'd like to.

"Probably not into coaching, this is probably the last gig of that I would expect. But I never even thought that I was quitting hockey at that time because it was such a crazy project that I didn't know if I'd last six months."

Perhaps being a general manager in the NHL could be in his future. Perhaps he'll remain in the Premier League for the rest of his career. He's already working on his next book.

He wouldn't want to put a limit on where he can go, though. He still has too much energy, and there's no telling how he'll use it.

View More