Ralph Krueger Interview – Howard & Jeremy (10/2/19)

October 2, 2019


Ralph Krueger

Howard & Jeremy (8 a.m.)


Howard Simon: We’ve got a lot of hockey questions for you, but first and foremost, what’s up with the espresso machine? Really? An espresso machine?

Ralph Krueger: We’ve got them all over the place now. That’s part of living in Europe for most of my adult life. It’s one of the things I grant myself on a regular basis after meals and so on. It’s interesting how many players actually have that as a part of their lifestyle already here. It’s nothing new for this new generation. Everybody’s enjoying their espressos, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for casual meetings all over the place in our locker room right now.

HS: The first question for me, Ralph, would definitely be how you are coming along. New coach coming in, you get the job, I’m sure you start looking at tape of all of these players and now you’re going through the process, as any coach would, to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each of the guys on your roster and you can coach accordingly. How are you coming along in that process in terms of learning what all these guys are about on and, for that matter, off the ice too?

RK: Well you framed it really well because as a coach you never understand or know a player until you coach him because you don’t know what the others coaches have been asking him or telling him to do. So you’re watching the tape and you don’t know what the directive is. Now the directives are clear, the asks with the puck or without the puck are very well-defined. The players know exactly what we want. Now I can evaluate them on a fair basis. I’ve been pleased with the evaluations so far. The buy-in has been outstanding. We won’t be perfect for a while, but we’re sure not going to lack in effort and the attempt at cohesiveness here. I can really feel it. The players are extremely open to the messages we’ve brought in. It’s been an outstanding training camp.

HS: Of course you’re going to coach Xs and Os and you’re going to have principles that you want this team to play with, but I think a lot of the guys are talking about how you just want them to go out and not maybe overthink it, or just rely on instincts. Can you talk a little bit about essentially how you want your team to play the game of hockey?

RK: Well we’re clearly much more concept- and principle-based than we are system-based. And for people that maybe don’t understand the difference, a system puts you into boxes continually defensively and offensively without any freedom really of creativity and movement. But if you have core principles within the structure, for instance defensively, if players are allowed to move within the boundaries, like you want them between the dots, you want them pushing back hard on the backcheck, there’s an opportunity to work within a framework where there’s more space — especially with the puck — to use your genius and use your expertise. We have a lot of that in the lineup. We’re trying to find a way that people watch the Sabres feeling like we are connected and everybody is playing together in both directions. But at the same time, you should feel a freedom of movement and you should feel speed in the group. Let’s see how it all plays out, but so far it’s been going quite well.

Sal Capaccio: Ralph when you were hired, my wife was excited. She’s from Frankfurt and she knows your parents are from Germany. No pressure there. She just keeps telling me, reminding me, Sabres have a German coach. But I do want to ask you about your time spent over coaching football over in Europe. I know you were in hockey, you went there, you came back. What did that time do for you now that you’re back been here integrated and coaching hockey again, what lessons did you learn and how have you been able to apply all of that?

RK: Just to be clear, I wasn’t coaching, per say, on the field or on the pitch. I was the president of the football team, so more in the role what Jason [Botterill] is doing here between general manger and president of the team kind of. Leading the organization, but very close to the football and very close to what was going on. What I learned more than anything was just to continue to evolve as a leader of athletes at the highest level. They have a special need, they’re so much more professional than they were decades ago. They’re 365-day machines now that actually have a lot of consultants working with them away from the team in the summertime and so on and so forth. It’s just managing the psychology of it, really, and making sure that these high-end athletes find a way and find things to grab on together, goals to reach as one. I know my experience in the Premier League was outstanding because it’s a similar mindset to here in National Hockey League because you’re dealing with the best athletes in your sport, and how to push their buttons is really the bottom line in my role. I need to push them the right way.

SC: Can I just follow up real quick? People talk all the time, we hear about, “well today’s athletes are so much different” in a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be extremely in a positive way the way these athletes interact or how treated and how they take care of themselves in their careers.

RK: Oh my god, I find the athletes they are so exciting to work with. They’re high-performance machines who need to be treated appropriately and with respect. If I think back to my generation growing up and playing in the ‘80s and, my career was in Germany, but we would play ourselves into shape in the fall and had definitely less professional off-ice programs. If I look at the buy-in with our players here to what we’re asking away from the ice, for every training session in training camp there was a pre-activation that took 20 to 25 minutes, a post weight lift that took 30 to 35 minutes. We skated on the ice for up to an hour and 15 minutes to any respect to what was actually going on off the ice and pushed them. And nobody complained, not one single moan or groan here. And I’ll tell you that for me, the speed in the NHL, the strength in the NHL, the pace of the game is all a result of the improved fitness of the players and that’s why the game of hockey just continues to get more exciting all the time.

HS: Who’s your number-two center?

RK: Well we don’t really have a number one, two, three, four, five of anything. It’s really the roles that they have. It’s clear that Jack [Eichel] is the leader of the team and everybody would call him the number one, but we use names and not numbers here. It’s going to be the role that you have, possibly playing up against the top line of the other team might not fall upon Jack or Marcus Johansson. It might fall on [Johan] Larsson. It’s about accepting the role that we need you to play and take the ice time and the minutes that you get and work with those. It’s clear from the outside people will want to rank our players, but for me everyone is important. The 13-minute guy that spends five of those minutes killing penalties is every bit as important as the 22-minute guy who plays eight of that on the power play. It’s just about getting everybody to buy into the roles, accept their roles, and execute them as best they can. That’s really our job as coaches.

HS: Maybe this does get back to when you were talking about principle-based versus system-based, as you well know even though you weren’t here, last season the Sabres had a ton of trouble in their own end. They were really confused at times Ralph. How do you go about — whether this ties into your earlier explanation or not — cleaning up play, being responsible in your own end?

RK: Well we’ve been working on that the entire training camp and the game without the puck, I speak about it so much, is really where you see the character of the team. It’s where you see the personality of a group and that has been a major focus in training camp because with the puck and offensively we have a lot of exciting skill and talent. It’ll be a never-ending teaching process that we have because there’s always improvement on the defensive side and there’s always also offensively things we can work on. I think that’s really our motto for this season. It’s going to be a small picture every day when we come in here. We’re going to work hard to improve. And that’s why I said to you at the beginning of the call, I’m going to come in here excited every day and I won’t let the noise, good or bad, around us affect our process of just improving on a daily basis. And if the fans can feel that, and the fans can feel the fight on the group, I think that the results will follow.

HS: You weren’t around for a second of the eight-year playoff drought, but you’re aware of it. And I wonder, do you feel any added pressure or added burden? I bring it up Ralph because the football team here had a 17-season playoff drought and coaches changed over that time. And as each guy came in, it’s almost like, they were always asked, and I don’t know if they felt an extra burden on their shoulders that they inherited from the previous coaches because of the drought. Do you?

RK: It doesn’t interest me at all. The past has not been just been bad here. It’s not fair to criticize anything that’s been done here over the last few years because so many fundamentally good things have happened here. I’ve walked into an outstanding support staff in all areas of the club. The people in and around the club and possibly the results for the fan or the playoffs weren’t achieved, but a lot of outstanding work has been done. We’ve increased our depth through the summertime. For me, it’s only about managing what we can change right now. I won’t let any of those other pressures get at the team. We understand the responsibility much more of having the 50th anniversary year. I think that’s more important than the playoff drought. It’s carrying the flag of the Sabres into this 50th year with pride and with honor and understanding the great history and the fans and their loyalty to the group. Let’s have that be a motivator and not a deterrent of trying to be a great team and moving forward together with our fan base as one. That’s how I’m feeling, really, honestly, right now. The past is there for us to learn from. The pain that the players went through last year is there for us to use as a source of energy, and not as a deterrent for just moving this club forward. Let’s hope that on our talk shows we get to speak about the development of the group that it’s very visible for everybody to see.

HS: Ralph, you’ve even talked about this, it might have been in the piece I read the other day — the sit-down you had with Pierre LeBrun — about getting the fans back and getting the fan base energized again because of what’s happened, because what they’ve gone through, even because last year the 10-game win streak and then the collapse. I was going to ask you how do you get the fans back feeling excited about the product? I would think the simple answer is you win. If you win, they’ll be back. 

RK: For me, the winning is always a byproduct. I really have a feeling that these fans in Buffalo are really honest. What I’m feeling is a passionate, honest fan base that if they feel that that team is giving its very best on a daily basis and they are fighting with all their hearts and souls that they will support us no matter the results. I really think, after spending a few months here now if Buffalo, that we have a very honest environment. We have a very real world here of good people, and that’s what we need to strive for: that our fans leave this building night and watch us play on the road and are convinced we’ve given our best. Let that be our motto to begin with. As you already said, I am also convinced the wins will follow.

SC: What have you liked about Buffalo outside of your job, personally?

RK: The quality of life is just so high here. I’m just positively surprised at the opportunities you have here, whether it’s the niche restaurant scene, the cultural music and arts opportunities, and just the size of the city. I love the core of the city and how much of history has been restored and held on to here in comparison to a lot of North American cities that have just been filled with high-rise buildings. I’ve really enjoyed that the access to nature here is amazing. My biggest surprise would be the quality of life here in this city and the good people that are in it.

HS: Thanks for your time, Ralph. We look forward to having you on each week. And don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of suggestions for you each week all season long.

RK: No worries. Throw anything you want at me. Every question’s a good question and we’ll find a way to a good answer. Howard and Sal, I wish you and all of the listeners, especially the Sabres fans, a good day and let’s get a great start tomorrow.

HS: Be careful, what you just said. Eichel and Olofsson on the power play. I like Olofsson on the right side, Eichel on the left side. Leave them both on the half wall and I’m very happy. You said you wanted to hear it.

SC: I’m sure you’re taking notes coach, I’m sure you’re taking notes.

RK: Actually — oh, my pen just ran out of ink.

HS: My best stuff goes to waste. Thanks for coming on with us Ralph, good luck this season.

RK: Thanks, have a good day.

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