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Krupp revisits his American roots in Buffalo

Uwe Krupp has traveled the world as a hockey player and coach. He won a Stanley Cup in Colorado. He played on Long Island, in Atlanta, Quebec and Detroit. Nowadays, he spends most of his time in his native Germany, where he works as a coach for the country's national hockey federation.

But all these years later, the memories of his days as a young hockey player in Buffalo remain the most vivid of all.

"I remember a lot of details about this place," Krupp said before Germany's game against Slovakia on Monday night at HSBC Arena. "I remember some of the other places, too, but Buffalo was special because it was so fresh and different for me."

Krupp was 17, a member of the German national team, when Scotty Bowman made him the 214th pick of the 1983 NHL draft. He came over a few years later, a scared kid with broken English. He remembers the trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, picking him up at the airport and taking him straight to Bowman's house.

"I met Scotty's wife, Suella, and his German shepherd," said Krupp, an assistant with the German junior squad. "It was very nice. The Knox family, they were very nice to me. I think maybe I got special treatment, because this wasn't another Swedish or Finnish player. There had never been a German player in the NHL. So they must have figured this kid needed extra attention, and Buffalo was a great place for that."

Yes, Buffalo is a great place for hockey players. Dozens of NHL types who have settled here could tell you that. Maybe that's why Krupp can close his eyes and see the entranceways to the old Aud. He can picture the oranges and the blues, the old locker room.

When Krupp arrived at HSBC Arena for the first team practice, one of the first things he did was go to the media room to look for Jim Kelley, who had covered him in his Sabres days and been a fond acquaintance over the years. Kelley was there in 1996 when Krupp scored the goal in triple overtime to give Colorado the Stanley Cup. He was crushed to hear that Kelley had died of cancer just weeks earlier.

"Jim was Buffalo to me," Krupp said.

Krupp has powerful connections to this town and its hockey culture. When he first came to the Sabres, Lindy Ruff was his defensive partner. He lived with Ruff and his wife, Gaye, for a time. Krupp, who has a passion for dogs and was a competitive dogsledder for many years, even remembered that the Ruffs' dog was named Holly.

"Then I started playing with Mike Ramsey," Krupp, 45, said. "Those two guys were pretty big influences on me. We still see each other now and then. I love knowing that Lindy Ruff is the longest-serving coach in the NHL."

Krupp was a young all-star defenseman when the Sabres included him in the trade that sent Pierre Turgeon to the Islanders for Pat Lafontaine in late 1991. He played three years with the Isles before moving on to Quebec, which moved to Colorado and beat Florida for the Cup. Ruff was an assistant for the Panthers at the time.

Two years later, Krupp signed a four-year, $16.8 million deal with the Red Wings. But he injured his back and spent two years embroiled in an ugly lawsuit with the Wings, who claimed Krupp had aggravated the injury while dogsledding. He played four games with Atlanta in 2002-03 before retiring because of back, knee and shoulder injuries.

"I was probably in better shape in Atlanta than early in my career," Krupp said. "But after 17 years, it was over for me."

Around that time, Krupp started a bantam hockey program in Atlanta. His son, Bjorn, who was born in Buffalo but moved to Germany when his parents divorced, moved to Atlanta in '02 and played hockey for the first time at 11. Five years later, Bjorn made the U.S. under-18 national team. He's in the Minnesota Wild system and playing for the OHL's Belleville Bulls.

Krupp got the coaching bug working with the kids in Atlanta. Soon after, he became an assistant for the German juniors. He moved up to the German national team a year later and became head coach just before the 2006 Olympics in Italy.

Last spring, Krupp led the Germans on a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the world championships. Ernst Hofner, the head coach of this year's German junior team, was his assistant.

"We just flip-flop," Krupp said. "The team that represented Germany this past spring, 90 percent of them I knew since they were 16, 17 years old."

The German team is very young. Many are seeing it through young, innocent eyes, the way Krupp did when he walked into the Aud for the first time.

"That's how we played [Sunday] night," Krupp said with a laugh. The Germans fell behind, 4-0, in the first period and lost, 4-3, to Switzerland. "The first 12 minutes, they were very, very overwhelmed by the arena, by the environment and the attention. For a lot of them, it's the highlight of their career."

They all began at the club level, dreaming of playing for the national team. That's where Krupp's heart is now. This is his last year working for the German hockey federation. Next year, he'll return to his hometown of Cologne, back to his roots, coaching at the local club level. If Germany ever hopes to become a world hockey power, that's where it has to start.

One thing Krupp knows for certain. That wide-eyed German kid who came to Buffalo a quarter century ago was meant to be a coach.

"I'm going full circle," he said. "I think everybody wanders a little bit after they're done playing. I came pretty quickly to the realization there's nothing my heart was more into than hockey. What do you know better than this life, this environment? When you've seen what works, well, you want to pass that on."

jsullivan@buffnews.com

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