Schopp & the Bulldog (3:30 p.m.)
Bulldog: It’s interesting to both of us that you were speaking to the fan base in public, not in public like on the radio like you have been today and again with us now, but when you were here a few weeks ago. The first thought I had when hearing about that was what those people are thinking now. Like, if thinking back on it they’re like, “Boy, I think I talked to the new Sabre coach last week.” Tell me about your motivation for wanting to do that and what you were seeking and what you found.
Ralph Krueger: Well, most importantly for me was to feel the heartbeat of the city. I’ve been following the Sabres since I was a kid growing up in Manitoba, and I’ve been to the city a few times when I was with Edmonton coaching, and I understand the passion and the history that’s there. But I wanted to feel a little bit what the market was saying, so I went two nights in a row I had some free time and watched two NHL playoff games in six different locations. So between periods, I’d walk around, sit beside somebody at a bar or in a booth, and chat about the Buffalo Sabres. I just wanted to hear a little bit what the public is saying. But overall, you could feel the passion and you could feel the belief in the core of the team. It was just part of walking up all the way through Allentown and Elmwood and everything and just seeing what the city’s like and the different personalities and the different hot spots. It was good; it was a good feel and I enjoyed the adventure.
Mike Schopp: What stage of your negotiations with the Sabres were you at at that point. Did they know you were doing that?
RK: Yes, they did. I had a meeting with Kim and Terry Pegula one of the mornings after, and Jason [Botterill] and I had a couple of days of meetings and that was near the end of April. It was a good way for me — they gave me some free space and some free time, and you know, walk along the water — just to look at the architecture in the city and some of the history. I love the size of the city. It’s the kind of environment my wife and I feel comfortable in. We’re not — I mentioned it today to the media already — we’re not really “big city” people. It’s got a good feel and a good size. I like the artsy development that’s going on and the renovations of a lot of the areas. So that’s a side — I think it’s really important as a balancer. The hockey is, of course the number one magnet. The facilities that are in and around KeyBank Center are outstanding and that’s the place where you want to spend your time, but you need to have balance as a coach and you need to know that there’s a good spot for your wife to be in. I feel good about that.
BD: When your name came up two years ago, it seemed like an intriguing idea, but I sort of lost hope about it right away because you sounded — and it read like — you had unfinished business with Southampton. So when it came up again this year, I was thinking of the Pierre LeBrun piece [in The Athletic], where you talked about maybe more of a president-type, an executive-type role, as opposed to coaching. What changed over the course of –I think that interview was from early April — what changed from then to now?
RK: Well Pierre spoke to me about three or four days after I made the decision public to end my time in the Premier League in Southampton. Quite honestly, I really opened up the viewfinder after that. There were opportunities, of course, in Europe of many sorts. There were a few approaches quite quickly out of the National Hockey League, and the one that interested me and intrigued me was the conversations with Jason. And I have to tell you that Jason Botterill very quickly woke the coach in me again. I’ve been a head coach for 25 years on many different platforms. I could feel the passion and probably having been away from being a coach a few years has refreshed me. And truly, I was quite clear. I remember one meal with my wife shortly after where I just said to her, “This is what’s exciting me the most. This is where my heart’s beating the highest.” So I pursued the conversations with Jason and all the boxes were ticked back-to-back-to-back and we have this end result, which I’m looking forward to stepping into that role beginning today.
MS: So the connection between yourself and Jason Botterill and his father became known here in the last few days, and then again it was brought out more today. To what extent did that maybe manifest during the season, or as Botterill is running the Sabres the last two years? Were you in contact with him about the Sabres through that, or is this really more just once the opening came to be that you sort of re-connected with him, which is closer to the reality?
RK: The only context we had was really on a personal level to congratulate each other whenever something good was happening with our teams. Otherwise, the contact did not pick up until Jason had made the decision here to go with a new head coach this season. Then everything just happened organically and naturally after that. Our communication is really open. I can feel the common culture and I can feel the vision that is in the club already and the culture that has been instilled by Jason here, which I embrace and only want to build on. It happened quickly, it’s happened instinctively and naturally, and I think that’s the best way for something like this to happen.
BD: I have a feeling what I’m about to ask is something that you could probably write a long, maybe even a book about; maybe you already have. But as best we can in just a few minutes, as far as coaching goes, there’s motivating, there’s extracting the best out of each member of the team that you’re working with, and then there’s systems, and there’s X’s and O’s and tactics. How much of a balance do you feel you have in that? Do you have a strength in one area versus the other and a weakness?
RK: Well, first of all, I definitely build a coaching team. So the coaches will all have a voice at all times. Ultimately, I have to make the final decisions and I’m fine with that. I love the coaching on the bench and enjoy being spontaneous and adaptable according to the performance of players. But I definitely love to use my staff and strengthen the game that we can offer the players through that personnel. But myself, I believe that every single thing has it’s time and every single thing has its importance, so I believe that motivation and structure of getting the group connected off the ice is first and foremost as we build our tactics, which should then show the same unity on the ice. The physicality is something I’ve learned a lot more about being in the Premier League these last six years, and the sports science that we’ve been doing there, I look forward to bringing more of it into our physical preparation. The technical side of a hockey player needs to be worked on continuously. I don’t think there’s ever a time when a player’s finished with his development. One of the challenges I like to do is spend time on technical development on a daily basis. So it’s every component, really, that I like to focus on, but I will use my personnel to help me in putting it into play. Even the physical fitness guys, the fitness coaches, the physiotherapist will be involved with the pre-activation. More than just the coaches will have a role pre-, post- and within training. I think you’re getting a feel –I can probably write a book — but I don’t believe that any head coach is 100 percent expert on anything. Putting those pieces together in the right balance at the write time is what, in the end, will define you as a winning or a losing coach. My job will be to try my very best to get that right.
MS: Well, I mean, in Western New York you’ve certainly got, in the spirit of these comments, Scotty Bowman, for starters. There are a lot of wins in the area, with him or John Muckler. It’s part of Buffalo’s proud history with hockey. The Sabres have asked us to keep this to 10 minutes and we’re there; I just want to tell you quickly, I was out last night and I ran into Nate Oates, the departing University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach, who lives on Grand Island, where I do. Not because we knew you were about to be hired, but he did just happen to tell me, “My house is for sale.” It’s nice, by the way. It’s about as good as you can do, if that interests you.
RK: [Laughs] I think I’m going to probably end up somewhere in the heart of the city. I’m a walking guy, too. Tell him thanks for the offer.
RK: I look forward to meeting you live and I also send my very best wishes to the fans of the Sabres. I look forward to communicating very openly with them about what we’re all up to and how we’re going to build the team into a squad that they’re going to enjoy looking at.