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Krueger has seen this kind of thing before, of course. Don’t forget, he was the coach of that titanic disaster known as the Edmonton Oilers for a season.
But it was actually in his second year behind a bench that he experienced both his nadir and epiphany as a coach. The season was 1992-93, and the team was VEU Feldkirch in the Austrian League. Three of his four import players were injured. The team was terrible and in complete disarray. But back home in Winnipeg, Krueger’s mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumour that would take her life not long after that.
When Krueger was going through his father’s archives about a decade ago, he found a letter that he had written to his mother in the midst of that awful time. “I wrote to her, ‘I know I’m in the right place,’ and I was really excited about it,” Krueger said. “I found that letter about 15 years later, and that just got me shaking. So it was in my deepest, darkest moment as a developing coach that I knew I was in the right place.”
What Krueger had come to realise that season was he had unlimited and untapped potential as a leader. He loved the challenge of the situation and relished the opportunity to persevere through adversity, something that will serve him well with the Sabres.
His ability to lead through the bad times got him through that season, then VEU Feldkirch won the league title each of the next five seasons until the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation took notice of Krueger’s work and hired him to coach their national team.
In his last season with Feldkirch, the team won the European Hockey League – the forerunner to the IIHF’s Champions League – with an enormous upset victory over Dynamo Moscow in the final. Krueger’s ability to build cohesiveness through adversity launched a motivational speaking career, landed him a position with the World Economic Forum and resulted in Teamlife: Beyond Setbacks to Success, a best-selling book written in German.
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Eichel has been here before, too, literally and metaphorically. He has lived through a healthy amount of upheaval since being picked second overall, one selection after Connor McDavid, in 2015.
The Sabres have been in a constant uphill rebuild, and there has been almost no depth at forward in this organisation since his arrival. The disastrous trade of Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2018 left a gaping hole at centre beyond Eichel, one that Casey Mittelstadt has yet to fill.
That leaves Eichel to face all the most difficult match ups pretty much on his own. It’s enough to wear a guy down after a while. And with zero games of playoff experience and another season that could be on the precipice of swirling down a sinkhole, the losing can be a little draining, too. But Eichel, who will be the first to admit he takes losses really hard and can get a little gloomy when they pile up, has seen a difference this season. “I don’t know, it’s been good this year,” Eichel said. “Even through a little adversity here, or whatever you might call it, it’s been a bit easier to come to the rink every day and just do your work. The environment that has been created here is one that’s competitive and enjoyable, but not one where it seems like everyone is walking around on eggshells.”
BELIEVE ME, I CAN BE RUTHLESS FOR THE CAUSE. I HAVE 52 STITCHES IN MY FACE
– RALPH KRUEGER
Of course, some of that comes from a growing perspective and maturity in Eichel. If you take losses too much to heart, the way he did earlier in his career, it’s going to be difficult to get through an 82-game season. He still hates losing, but Eichel is able to compartmentalise those feelings. The same goes for the games when he looks as though he’s ready to break through as one of the league’s top players.
On both sides of the equation, he knows there’s another game in a couple days, one that will provide an opportunity for redemption if things didn’t go well or the challenge to do it again if things did go well.
One of Eichel’s best friends in and out of hockey is Boston defenceman Matt Grzelcyk, who played with Eichel at Boston University in 2014-15, the only season Eichel spent in college and one in which he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player.
Grzelcyk has seen Eichel get frustrated. He could just tell by watching his friend’s body language on the ice and in post-game interviews, but he is seeing less of it now. “Maybe sometimes he comes off as frustrated with his teammates, but a lot of times I think he’s really hard on himself and kind of puts the blame on himself even though it doesn’t come off that way,” Grzelcyk said.
“Just talking with him, he’s done a good job of fixing that, and I think it’s gone a long way with his teammates. I think they’ve kind of earned his trust, and it seems he’s giving more trust to them to make plays. He’s quicker to notice when things are going wrong and be a little more vocal but in a positive way. Over an 82-game season, you don’t want to be negative all the time. It can wear on you, and he’s doing a good job with that.”
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For his part, Krueger acknowledges it has been a tough go for everyone in Buffalo – management, the players, the fans. “It’s going to come, I believe it’s going to come,” Krueger said. “There’s so much skill and so many hungry individuals right now that have had a lot of pain in their past, and we can profit from that because their desire and hunger to do the right thing is there. I can see it in the spirit of the group. And I can see it on the bench. And I can see it when we have defeats, how they’re processing it, with a healthy amount of pain and not a ‘Poor me,’ feeling sorry for themselves.”
If Eichel needed anyone to lift his spirits, he’s found it in Krueger, a guy who could convince Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore he had a legitimate shot at winning the Triple Crown.
We all saw during the World Cup of Hockey what Krueger was capable of when he took Team Europe, the Miss Congeniality hockey-playing countries, to the final.
And as far as former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock is concerned, anyone who downplays Krueger’s contributions to the team that won gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi does so from a place of ignorance. This was a team that was so dominant that by the time they skated off the ice with the gold medals around their neck, anyone who watched all their games could recall by memory each goal the team gave up on account of there were only three of them in six games.