By John Vogl (The Athletic)
STOCKHOLM – Ralph Krueger sees things differently than most people.
That’s true in the grandest of schemes with his role as a motivational speaker. It’s true in hockey, too. The Sabres coach has worked all over the world, which has helped him avoid the cookie-cutter mindset that develops when people stay in one place for too long.
“I do have a different perception,” Krueger said from a glass conference room overlooking his hotel lobby. “It’s just different. I’m not saying what’s better or worse, but I definitely have developed a unique style.”
And it almost never happened. Back in 1991, Krueger was planning to get into the hotel business in Austin, Texas. But the native of Manitoba ran into visa troubles, so to bridge the time gap he took a coaching job in Austria.
“And the rest is history,” he said.
As he returns to Europe with the Sabres, Krueger is clearly savoring his time in the NHL and his introduction to Western New York. When he draws up new practice drills, he names them after streets in Buffalo.
“There’s a lot of little things going on that are very, very organic,” he said. “It’s feeling good and we’re just going to continue to grind this process forward, you know?”
Krueger took a break from the grind to sit with The Athletic in a chat that has been edited for clarity.
How have you felt in Buffalo? I know you’ve been all over the world.
We’ve felt at home really quickly. We feel a lot of parallels to Europe in Buffalo. Buffalo has retained through its difficult decades of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s a unique personality. I haven’t seen an American city that has that ethnic, historical kind of feel to it, which doesn’t mean it’s all perfect. It’s not all perfect in Buffalo, but there’s something charming about it. There’s charming of the whole and then the access to nature, especially around the water and everything, whether you walk around Unity Island or you walk down at Canalside or you walk on Lake Erie for five miles 20 minutes outside of town. And then you can go south into the hills and walk through them.
There’s so much nature surrounding you, which my wife and I have found to be a wonderful balance to the crazy pace of the NHL. So we really feel at home. We feel a warmth to the people. Nothing has really changed for me. Even recognition doesn’t change the way people have been interacting with us or with me when we go out. We continue to move in a comfortable fashion. And we’ll fight that the team is respected so that stays that way, but it’s been better than we expected, which is always a nice thing.
You mentioned nature. Have you always been into the outdoors?
Always. Even when we travel with the team on the road, I’ll look for moments or opportunities in nature. When we were in San Jose, I worked until 2:30, 3 o’clock and then got in a car to Santa Cruz Beach. Really, really long two-hour walk, light dinner, back to the hotel. Just for me, I have to submerge myself into nature regularly to fill my batteries up. I don’t hit gyms that often because of that, and I’m not afraid of the cold, either. My wife and I are ready to bundle up to get out in Buffalo. But I think accessing nature is something I really need for my soul, so that’s important to me.
But I also like culture and I like quaint and I like owner-operated restaurants and I like just that whole area from Delaware Park to Elmwood Avenue, that whole inside there. The way that residential area’s been preserved and all the green spaces they have in those alleyways leading in and out of that whole area, it’s very impressive. I don’t know if there’s a residential area in a city like that in America. I can’t imagine there’s very many.
Obviously, a lot of people talk about the motivational style you have. When did you hone that or when did you really start to build on that?
I think fear made me a student of that when I became a head coach and my kids were 3 and 1. I started coaching and I had so much respect for the danger of being a head coach with a young family that I thought I better start something else on the side. So I’d had a business mind kind of all the way through my playing career and I dipped into all kinds of different things. And I was really interested in getting into the hotel business actually at the time, and so I had already learned a lot about leadership.
And then I go over to Europe and I’m coaching and then I decided, ‘Okay, this is me.’ I felt totally at home. But I started really in the first division of Austria, and so what I did was I took what I was doing and started going out and speaking. Sports speakers here in Europe was not the norm, so although there was the Vince Lombardis and all that in North America, in Europe it was absolutely nobody speaking in the Germanic market. In all of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, there was nobody speaking about, ‘This is what we are doing in sports,’ and then we went on and the rest is history there.
I realized the message was simple, it was clean. It was logical for me, and I realized it wasn’t logical for the people in Europe in the business segment. So I had a niche there. And it became a very successful venture for me that took me eventually to the World Economic Forum, the Swiss national team. And so I just kept building, building, building, building, building, I never stopped doing it. And that started in 1993-94. And so what I realized was that people were interested in the message and that it mattered and that it changed lives. Because I then would get feedback from companies and individuals and then it just took off. But I completely concentrated on the German market because it was so unique and nobody was doing it. And then eventually I broke into all the top 20 corporations in Switzerland. I started working with them pretty regularly through from 2000 to 2010 when I went to Edmonton. That was like 10 years of really interesting work for me, but then I realized the motivation was actually making a difference in people’s lives and that really inspired me to continue building my career.
In what languages would you do that in?
It was like Danglish, like English and German. A lot of companies in Europe are going to English as a main language. Most of the bigger banks, insurance companies, automobile industry, food industry, they’ve just given up on doing German, French, Italian things and they just do an English. English is the dominant second language in all of Europe now, whereas most countries did not have English as a second language. Like French would have German and Germany would have even Russian at one time in the east part. And now it’s just English across the board basically because of the internet, too. But my main speaking language was German, for sure. That was my market, that’s 100 million people. There’s 100 million people that have German as a primary language in Europe and that’s where I did the motivational work.
How many languages do you speak?
Just fluently two. I can’t count French or anything. I mean, I can understand so much because I’ve lived in Switzerland so long, but really, completely fluently where I could stand up and speak for an hour would be German and English.
I think back to when someone asked you about something the team was struggling with. You said, ‘No, it’s not a struggle. It’s an opportunity.’ Just using the right word is so important, I can see.
Well, I think the use of language and the use of the verbiage as a leader, people aren’t aware of the impact they can have on the tone of the process. I’ve always naturally had that in me. I think my mom would have been my biggest influence on that. She was always a solution-driven person. She died of a brain tumor just around my age now, like around 60 and way too young. I just remembered that impacted me to carry her message. It really inspired me to take her amazing … like she never said a bad word about anybody ever – ever. It was just about treating people right was what I learned from her.
I think respect is a cornerstone for me and the other one is discipline, which they sometimes collide because respect is more the positive of treating people the way you want to be treated and truly living it that way and trying to get the best out of the people that you come in contact with no matter who they are. And at the same time, having an edginess with the discipline and the framework and the hard work ethic that you need to truly build something of substance. Because if you’re only dealing with the respect and you don’t put in the work, then it doesn’t work in our world. Those are kind of my cornerstones of everything I like to do.
You mentioned treating people with respect. I know fans have gotten a kick out of when you leave press conferences. You always tell us, ‘Have a good day,’ or, ‘Enjoy the day off.’ That’s a rarity. People just like to see that.
For me, that’s just normal. Like we’re all doing this together, right? The media and I, together with Chris (Bandura, the vice president of media relations) are just trying to get a message out there. I do neutralize the consumption of the opinions of others, with no lack of respect. Chris will summarize what’s going on all the time so that I know what’s going on, but I don’t put my energy into it because I know I have all the facts, right? So why would I go reading too many other opinions? That’s why I have assistant coaches and that’s why I’m working with Jason (Botterill, the general manager) very closely. So it’s really important with the speed in which we’re going from game to game to game to game to game that you simplify and dummy down everything around you, all the noise.
And what noise you let in has to be filtered for me to keep the positive mindset no matter what – no matter what. You know things are going to go. We are not just on some kind of a joyride right up to our potential. We’re going to go like we did last weekend (he makes a roller-coaster motion with his hand). This is normal. The love of my job right now is how much I’m able to live in the moment because that is my ultimate goal in life, to spend as much time in the present as I can with whatever the situation is. Whether it’s good, bad, ugly, whatever, just being in that situation and truly living it is, for me, where you find the most depth in your life. And this job is the ultimate because there’s no need to go very far forward. You have to deal with the past really quickly, too, because the future is coming really quite fast. Because it’s the games with which we’re measured, right? So I find it I find it extremely interesting to be thrown back into this intensity of life. It’s very intense. You definitely know you’re alive here.
You said living in the moment. I think back to when you were hired and Tom Renney said, ‘You’ll never leave a conversation with Ralph thinking it was a waste of time.’
Wow, that’s nice. I didn’t know that.
Yeah, what does that mean, first of all, to hear that?
You just said ‘wasted time,’ that’s something I really am trying not to do ever. Whatever time I have, try to make it precious and try to make it special. That’s why your connection to family, whatever your family structure is – you don’t have to be married, you don’t have to have kids, it could be extended family, your family could be a group of friends, whatever – you need a real solid core of support that is consistent and real all the time for you to be strong enough to give energy.
I do believe the way you treat people you end up getting that back over time, even though in the short term sometimes you’ll be disappointed. I hold on to that belief that the human being in his or her core is actually good and it’s the environments that often lead us down paths that are not good. We see it in the big specter of world politics, but we see it in small, little situations in a restaurant, how a boss treats a waiter. I’m very, very sensitive to that. I think that’s one of the things I’ve always had is a sensitivity to how the mood of the environment is. So I can stand in front of the team and if they say nothing, I know where the team is kind of at and sense that.
You’ve mentioned family a few times. How have they enjoyed this ride with you so far?
The kids (who live in Switzerland) have been amazing. It was very traumatic when I made the decision to leave Europe again, knowing that gulf, that little body of water would be between us. Putting the Atlantic between us again wasn’t something we expected. My kids studied in North America. My son went to Cornell, upstate New York, and my daughter went to Florida, and we were over on the other side. And now they moved over there and we’ve come over here. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but I think they all saw the need for me to get back into the NHL again, to do the job that I have the most skills to do.
Out of all my skills, there’s only one place I can put them all in play, and that’s here in the National Hockey League, at this level of athlete, in this environment. And they’ve been amazing, the support’s been amazing. We’re FaceTiming, we’re Skyping every day. I’ll find out tonight if my granddaughter still recognizes me. I think she will. And I would say that my wife has been amazing because she’s paying the biggest price of everybody with my job evolution, going from coaching to chairman in Premier League and now coming over here. She’s my most important teammate, of course, and she’s so supportive positively all the time. So I’d say the family’s really excited about it and they understand also the reality of it. Our start was fantastic, but we have a long way to go. But it’s more of the process that I’m back into that they’re excited about seeing.
I could see as you were talking, the smile would come when you think of your wife. Who else uplifts you and who else really motivates you?
Well, I have a close core of friends. Not a lot. I don’t think any of us have really a lot of close friends, but they’re extremely connected to me whatever and wherever I am. They’re very international, too. In the hockey world, I have good friends, too, and they’ve been amazingly supportive in this process and happy for me, which is nice to see. People like Tom Renney, Paul Maurice, just top-notch human beings who are just right there at any point in time to reach out to. I have many more, but I keep it tight because our alone spaces are so short and tiny in the NHL. I’ll expand that again in the offseason. Hopefully, it’s not too long. But in this period right now, it’s mostly family.
And also the people I’m working with are inspiring me. I’m learning from all my staff, not only the hockey staff but the rest of them. We’ve got great, great people in Buffalo, so I try to really tap into that knowledge, too. Because, really, the bottom line is why did I come here? Because it was the only thing where I had a lot of respect for the role. I could have taken a lot easier rides. This was the toughest ride for me – by far. That’s No. 1. No. 2, I wanted to go somewhere to grow again and this is certainly something I’m doing every day in Buffalo. Every day I’m growing and learning something new. Those two elements are why I took this job: Because it’s going to be tough, and I wanted that, and I’m going to learn and grow.
What did you see that was going to be tough?
Being a head coach in the National Hockey League, in this profession, nothing is tougher than that. A lot of people dream about doing it, but actually when you’re in it, there’s nothing free here at all, zero. You have to earn every single minute of every single day. To push this team against the competition we have in the parity of the National Hockey League, it’s the challenge that’s tough. And it’ll never go away. It’ll never be easy. There won’t be an easy day here. But it’s a toughness that I feed on. It gives me energy and, I know I’ve used this twice now, but I told you I know I’m alive, and you really know you’re alive in this role. You can’t have fear going into it. You have to have respect for the challenge, not fear. It was never really fear. It was more just a respect. And that respect you should never lose and you can never lose or this league will just eat you up.