The Instigators (11:45 a.m.)
Andrew Peters: Welcome to Buffalo, welcome to The Instigators Mr. Krueger. What’s the first order of business?
Ralph Krueger: The first order of business was to do your program. No, it’s good to hear you and it’s always excellent to begin a coaching job with players on the other end of the phone. That’s a nice start.
Martin Biron: Well one of the players that you coached and you’ve known for a long time is Thomas Vanek and we had him right away at the top of the show and he had nothing but good things to say about you. Tell us a little bit about your experience through your hockey world and coaching and your playing days as well.
RK: Well more than anything I’ve been living in Europe most of my adult life but I began my career in hockey as a three-year-old walking onto an outdoor rink just outside of Winnipeg. Hockey has always remained my love and I’ve just been able to grow and develop as a human being through all different stages of playing as a professional, coaching, even had a player-coaching gig at the beginning for a couple of years. I’ve definitely gone the multiple destination route all over the map in hockey but always staying close to the game and trying to get better every day as a leader and as a coach. I’m excited now to put all that experience into play in Buffalo.
Craig Rivet: How long is it going to take before you start to reach out to the players on the team? I’m sure that they’re extremely excited with a new coach coming aboard. How long before you start reaching out to each guy on the team?
RK: Well I’ll be meeting with Jack (Eichel) and Sam (Reinhart) in Slovakia next week. Our season just ended in the U.K. last weekend so I have some things to clean up but I’ll be in Slovakia and be able to watch Sam and Jack and speak to them. Sadly, Brandon (Montour) got hurt and won’t be there anymore, but in the weeks that follow I’ll be reaching out to each individual player and begin that process of understanding what their motivations are, how we can maximize their abilities and their potential. That’s going to be my job and I really look forward to picking up with the players in the next few weeks here.
AP: What does that conversation sound like, look like when you talk to players like Jack and Sam?
RK: Well, first of all I’m going to do a lot of listening. Jack is now an experienced National Hockey League player, Sam has been there a few years now too and I think it’s important to listen first and foremost and then to process. I need to make sure that the staff, the coaching staff is ready to go when we blow the whistle for our first training camp practice and we’ve got four months to get all the information that we need to be able to do that. Of course I’ll be letting them know what’s important to me, but I want to feel what’s been working for them. I want to feel where they see our assets as an organization, as a hockey club. And I’ll be tapping into that experience first and foremost before I formulate the final plan that the players will then be feeling when we go to training camp.
MB: How much attention were you paying to the National Hockey League in the last three years here since we saw you last on the bench at the World Cup for Team Europe? How close have you been paying attention and how much work will it take for you to get up to speed with what’s going on around the whole National Hockey league?
RK: Well the good thing, Marty, is my experience, especially in the last decade, took me very close to a lot of NHL head coaches and that relationship has stayed on a permanent communication basis. So I’ve got friends all over the league, quite a few actually in our division, which is a good thing. They’ve been quite open with me. I take the example of the Olympic Games in 2014, where we had Babcock leading a group of (Ken) Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien and myself. The communication that went on there for one year where everybody put everything out on the table and the discussions were really open. Discussions of that nature have stayed on. I had Paul Maurice and Brad Shaw at the World Cup in 2016. We’ve become very close friends and are permanently communicating with each other. So all over the league I’ve got people, Jon Cooper down in Tampa and so on, who really are friends through my experience and it’s been helpful. I have to tell you the truth, even while I was in the Premier League, my startup site, every single morning, was NHL.com and always watching games, highlights in my free time. So the connection has been tight. My son is a professional hockey player too now, playing in Switzerland. Whether internationally or in the National Hockey League, it’s remained my passion. It’s remained the favorite place for me to go and so my connections have been deep. But that’s a good question and I need to work really hard through the summer to make sure I’m completely up to speed on the personnel of our opposition.
AP: We talk a lot on this show about team identity. Do you have an idea of what kind of identity you want your team to have?
RK: Well, first and foremost, I’m the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres because Jason Botterill has been reaching out to me of late and especially when I made it clear that it was time for me to get back into hockey, our conversations just flowed so naturally and were so strong. The culture that Jason wants his organization, his players, his team to look like completely is in line with what I believe in. And then when I met Terry and Kim Pegula, I have to tell you the Pegulas are really, really clearly the people that finalized my decision to come here when I look at the culture that they want to see in the club. So those things are really important and then my job will be to drive that culture into the dressing room, into the players. And people should feel it when we play Buffalo Sabres hockey that there’s an identity there that people respect and that we are competitive every single night. And I look forward to bringing into the front, that will be my job.
CR: I had the opportunity to play under nine different NHL coaches in my time and when I look back to those coaches, you spoke of Claude Julien, you spoke of Lindy Ruff. I had a lot of other great coaches and one thing I realized is that in each and every coach, those guys were only as good as the guys that they surrounded themselves with. And that’s talking about the assistant coaches and guys that the head coach speaks with and build game plans and environment and everything else. Have you had an opportunity or do you have anybody in mind of who you plan on bringing on to your staff?
RK: I can’t really bring any names on the table. I will be contacting the assistants that were with the Sabres this year and will be reaching out to some candidates that I have had experience with. Again, I’m the type of leader that also likes to surround myself with people that are ready to ask hard questions and challenge me on a daily basis. That’s going to be important as we go forward, that we have a real, honest staff environment where everybody is involved and everybody has a voice. The important thing for me will be to find a group that has different strengths that brings assets to the table that are unique and not just one tone through the coaching staff. So that search will begin and Jason and I will be working very tight on building that team. We’re not in a big rush; I think if we have it set by the development camp it would be a good goal to have, to have your entire coaching staff in place. So we’re going to take our time and get it right rather than get it quick.
AP: You had Steve Smith in Edmonton; how influential was he, if at all, with your decision to come here?
RK: Steve, I’m sure, gave an opinion to Jason which didn’t hurt, because I’m here.
AP: I didn’t know if maybe you had any dialogue with him at all or anything.
RK: No, I’m the kind of person, I didn’t make a lot of calls. I like to make my own impression, to tell you the truth. I didn’t reach out to a lot of people. I came into Buffalo undercover a few weeks ago and walked the streets for five, six hours on one day and three hours the next. I enjoyed the passion of the people. I asked people about hockey, I watched two playoff games. I’m not going to mention the pubs I was in, but it was really interesting. I asked people about the Sabres, I asked them how they were feeling about the potential of the group and what I felt was a passion for the game. I really like the size of the market. I’m more a smaller-city person than a big-city person personally, but also, I know the history of the Sabres. I grew up loving to watch the way they played and I can feel the passion for the fan base and the hunger for something good to happen here. I’d love to see that happening when I think of those people who now won’t be able to talk to me in the pub anymore. It’s certainly the right time to go to a fabulous hockey market.
MB: The last few years here in Buffalo, the fans have been patient. Obviously Jason Botterill has talked about progression and wanting to see this group progress, play meaningful games in March and April. But everything really, it comes down to playoffs. What is your goal, realistically, for this group moving forward right from the first year?
RK: Well it’s a little early to make big promises, but no question that I have taken this job with the belief that we can become a contender very quickly and that we need to be in the mix. I know Jason and I have spoken about that a lot. I was part of a rebuild in Edmonton and this is not a rebuild. This team is ready to go to another level of competitiveness and we need to get into that mode really quickly. I think that my life as a coach really predominately was at World Championships, Olympics, World Cups and I coached over 17 tournaments at that level, 18 actually all together. Every game in those tournaments was like a playoff game, every game was important and mattered and I think that’s what we want to be. A club that very quickly is playing hockey in games that matter right through the season into April and then beyond. I can tell you that a defined goal, it would be too early to speak about, but the general feeling is let’s become competitive quickly and let’s become a contender quickly.