SOCHI, Russia — Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock employed Ralph Krueger as a spy this season, a James Bond of hockey, if you will, and now he’s hoping he can deliver From Russia with Love.
Krueger has been Canada’s secret agent this winter, tramping his way around Europe the last six months watching the coaches of every team but the U.S. and Canada go through their daily paces.
Krueger is now a double-agent. He coached Switzerland at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and put his name on the international hockey map with a win over Canada. That knowledge, how the Canadians were made vulnerable by the international game en route to a humiliating seventh-place finish, is what makes Krueger invaluable to Babcock and why the Edmonton Oilers loss was Team Canada’s gain.
Krueger had little time last summer to process the fact the Edmonton Oilers had just fired him. Because the phone rang again and it was Babcock on the other end offering the Winnipeg-born and Steinbach-raised Krueger a position on his staff.
"I’ve been telling people for 25 years that when you can’t change something in life, find a positive process, and solutions, things that move you forward. I remember sitting on my daughter’s bed at home in Switzerland, and my wife Glenda was in shock. She was screaming and yelling," tells Krueger, watching Norway practice here in Sochi.
"I quickly said, 'Can I change anything?' This is a done deal. (Oilers GM Craig MacTavish) told me he had an option (which was to hire Dallas Eakins). The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I don’t need to understand this. It’s a waste of my time, my life, of analysis. I’m not going to talk negative about anybody. Let’s go.’
"I swear, it was three hours after they announced it in Canada, Babcock phoned me. Three hours. So I threw myself into this. Mike got my number from Tom Renney. Three hours. My wife said ‘You already accepted another job?’ She thought I was nuts."
Krueger needed to have an understanding of Babcock’s process and the head coach wanted to pick the brain of his tactician. Then began the work.
Every power play, every penalty kill, every zone defence and every breakout to be used in this Olympic hockey tournament, Krueger has seen it, documented it, and will now pass it on to Team Canada.
Krueger might not bang home the winning goal two weeks from now in the gold-medal game, but if Canada is in that position, his work will have played a major influence. He’s been Canada’s pro scout and tactical advisor.
"So I had threefold responsibilities, one was the tactical preparation of the team. We set the tactical foundation and I have been monitoring that now through the season, how it’s going to apply to the big ice. The second track has been the preparation of the 11 opponents. We’ve got a full profile on everybody and we’ve got video footage to match their tactical approaches. All the coaches are full time, except for the U.S and Canada, so it’s easier to monitor the trends.
"The third thing is, as part of the management’s coaching team, having the opportunity of being a part of the evaluation process of the players. So that was a lot of fun."
There’s been lots of talk about systems and the big ice playing a role in the outcome of this tournament. In Vancouver, on NHL-sized ice, Canada and the U.S. dictated the style of play and collided in the gold medal game. Here, on an international-sized surface, which is wider with a longer neutral zone and two extra feet behind the nets, the style of play could favour the European-based teams.
Krueger, who grew up in Steinbach in the house of his father Karl-Hugo and mother Eva before boarding at St. John’s Ravenscourt School, spent close to 20 years playing and coaching in Europe before taking a job with the Oilers.
More than anyone on the Team Canada staff, he understands the way the international game is played.
"In Europe, it’s critical how teams approach the neutral zone, which is eight feet longer blue line to blue line. How do they approach that neutral zone? How do they play defensively when they lose possession of the puck, and how can you break that?" said Krueger.
"Of course the clear tactics of PP, penalty kill strategy. It’s not copy-paste like many NHL environments. I can look at all 30 NHL teams and so much is repetitive strategic approach. Within this tournament, in six games in 11 days, you could see complete, wide-open variety of strategies. So strategic shifts day-to-day are the most difficult thing for the NHL players. They’re used to seeing a similar animal coming at them every night, and it’s something we’re trying to figure out the key points because we don’t want to over load them as the strategies are changing."
Krueger maintains a summer home in Kenora, and he and Glenda, the daughter of Westwood’s Earl and Hope Gibbons, have been spending their summers together ever since they met on the beach at Star Lake in 1981.
His father sent him to Ravenscourt for a book education, but Ralph had other ideas.
"I was nine years old and one of the only boarders my age. I was supposed to be there to go to school, but I spent all day and all night in the Dutton Memorial rink skating and shooting pucks.
"SJR has a lot to do with who I am today and what I became today and the leadership responsibilities that I’m taking on," says Krueger, tall and fit and bristling with positivity. "My Dad helped build the hospital in Steinbach. He was a doctor… He went to Steinbach (from Germany) in the 50s, and they didn’t have a proper hospital. He was one of the founders. He left his legacy there in Steinbach."
Krueger may have spent the last half-year developing a strategic book on how to beat the European nations, but at the end of the day, he says Canada must be Canada.
"The most important thing is that we play the game where we are the best in the world and that’s between the dots," said Krueger. "Everyone is talking about that ice, and I’m talking about not playing there. And that’s probably the biggest input I’m bringing to the team, how can we not play on that extra ice?
"What happens is, if you play in the extra ice, it slows your game down. That’s why sometime you watch a European game it seems slower and that’s because of the extra space. Players handle the puck longer, they move it with less tempo and authority and that slows the game down. Whereas if you bring it in between the dots, it’s the same game. So let’s get there and forget this width and let’s play. The north, south is exactly the same distance."
Babcock will do the coaching and Sidney Crosby et al will do the the playing and in the end they’ll get the glory if Canada wins.
But behind every battle is a plan and somewhere in all the documents and diagrams Krueger has compiled is an edge that could give Canada’s hockey spy a new name: GoldenEye.