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Swiss hockey coach coming home

Steinbach's Krueger back in Manitoba for pre-Oly exhibition games

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RALPH KRUEGER is on the line all the way from Zurich, Switzerland when he is given the obligatory weather update from here in friendly, frosty Manitoba.

Told of the below-average temps, Krueger whistles. And it's not one of those 'ha-ha' whistles, but rather one with a sympathetic undertone.

Krueger, you see, is one of us -- even if he hasn't experienced a full Manitoba winter since the late '70s as a teenager with the old Assiniboine Park Monarchs of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

Since then hockey has taken him to the west coast and all over Europe and the rest of the globe. And next week the 50-year-old Steinbach product returns home as the head coach of Switzerland's men's Olympic hockey team for two pre-tournament games against Belarus at the MTS Centre.

Asked if the Krueger clan will fill a whole side of the building for the 'homecoming' games next Tuesday and Thursday, the man breaks into chuckle...

"Your damn rights," Krueger explains. "There's two sides. There's the Krueger side -- I think I've got about 20 people coming and then my wife's side is the Gibbons family and they'll be bringing another 20.

"We're going to have a big section. It's been quite some time since I've been so close to family at a game so it's going to be a lot of fun.

"The fans in Winnipeg will see that we're very fast. We don't have a lot of size, but we make up for it with speed and energy. I think this team is a lot of fun to watch. And Belarus is really up and coming."

Now, before we go any further, we know what some may be wondering here: how does a guy from Steinbach, who went to school at St. John's Ravenscourt and played in the MJHL and Western Hockey League end up coaching the Swiss Olympic team -- the very same squad that upset both Canada and the Czech Republic in Turin four years ago?

Well, any story about Ralph Krueger should really begin by spreading out a world map. Krueger's parents emigrated to Steinbach from Germany in the mid-'50s and, after schooling at SJR and playing for the MJHL's Monarchs, Krueger headed to the WHL, first with the New Westminster Bruins and then the Calgary Wranglers (where he finished second in team scoring to Kelly Kisio in 1978-79).

Holding a dual citizenship, Krueger then hauled his equipment bag to Duesseldorf of the German Bundesliga, then Schwenningen, Riessersee, Iserlohn, back to Duesseldorf, then Krefeld and Duisburg. It was in Duisburg where Krueger first started coaching and that was followed by a gig with Feldkirch in Austria before landing the Swiss job some 13 years ago.

"I came over for one year and I'm still here after just turning 50," said Krueger with a laugh. "My wife Glenda, who's from Winnipeg, and I have both become Europeanized Canadians over here."

In fact, Krueger's two offspring -- Justin, a defenceman with Cornell University and a Carolina Hurricanes' draft pick in '06 and daughter Geena, a member of the waterski team at Rollins College in Florida -- were both born in Europe.

But change is also on the horizon for Krueger. After 13 years with the Swiss program and helping build it from being ranked 13th in the world in 1997 to its current standing of seventh, he's moving on after this season.

"I feel it's as far as I can take the program and after a great finish I'll hand it off to somebody else," Krueger said. "That was my goal when I took over: to put hockey on the map. We weren't really respected at the beginning and it's something we've had to fight for.

"I've no definite plans right now. My focus is to finish this properly with the Olympics."



When: Game 1 Tuesday, Feb. 9; 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Feb. 11, 11:30 a.m.

Where: MTS Centre.

Switzerland: ranked 7th in the world. Lineup features two NHLers: goaltender Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) and defenceman Mark Streit (Islanders) and two players in the AHL: defenceman Yannick Webber (Hamilton) and forward Andres Ambuhl (Hartford). Long-time NHLer Hnat Domenichelli is also on the Swiss roster.

Belarus: ranked 8th in the world. Lineup features four NHLers: defenceman Ruslan Salei (Colorado) and forwards Mikhail Grabovsky (Toronto) and Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn (Montreal Canadiens)

Tickets: Sales for Thursday's 'Schools Game' are available in the upper bowl.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2010 C4

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