When Ralph Krueger sought to find out more about the Sabres and the City of Buffalo, he went undercover in a handful of bars during a visit late last month.
The 59-year-old coach watched two Stanley Cup playoff games, switching venues at the conclusion of each period, and asked patrons about the team he could coach next season. The fact-finding mission revealed a passionate fan base in a city that embodies the blue-collar values he has instilled in players during his decades of coaching.
Krueger called the experience "enlightening," a visit that showed he and his wife, Glenda, they would feel comfortable calling Western New York home. However, it was conversations with General Manager Jason Botterill and owners Kim and Terry Pegula that convinced Krueger to accept the Sabres' coaching job, a position each of his four predecessors held for less than three years.
"I could just feel the coaching magnet calling me back," Krueger recalled during a conference call hours after he was announced as the Sabres' coach Wednesday.
Krueger has not been behind an NHL bench since 2012-13, when he was head coach of the Edmonton Oilers for 48 games during a lockout-shortened season. His work as a consultant with Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics was lauded by coach Mike Babcock and helped the team win a gold medal.
Krueger turned down an offer to become coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in October 2014, only six months after he signed on to work as chairman of English Premier League's Southampton Football Club. He would not hold another coaching job until 2016, when he guided Team Europe to the World Cup of Hockey Final.
When Botterill was hired as Sabres general manager in May 2017, his former boss in Pittsburgh, Jim Rutherford, suggested Krueger as a candidate to replace Dan Bylsma as Buffalo's coach. Botterill, who was in Turin when Krueger led Switzerland to a monumental upset over Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics, engaged in preliminary talks, only to quickly learn Krueger intended to stay with Southampton.
When Phil Housley was fired following the season finale, Botterill quickly contacted Krueger, who was dismissed by Southampton last month. Krueger told TSN's Pierre LeBrun last month any return to the NHL would likely be in a management position. However, the Sabres' roster and what he called "natural flow" to conversations with Botterill led to a shift in thinking.
"I think that above all, this group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night," Krueger said. "I'm confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly. I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and the way he thinks.
"He understands the necessity of being strong with and without the puck and developing a team game that's dynamic and allows this core group of players to develop and show their skill but at the same time find the discipline as a group to defend properly."
Krueger's resume is unlike any in professional hockey, and the hire is unconventional during an offseason in which three vacancies have been filled by retread coaches.
Krueger, who was born in Winnipeg to two German immigrants, has only three seasons of experience behind an NHL bench, beginning with two years as an assistant with the Oilers. He joined the organization in 2010 and helped their power play improve from 27th to third in the league during his second season under Tom Renney.
Krueger was promoted to head coach in June 2012 but only lasted one season, despite leading the Oilers to a 19-22-8 record with a rebuilding roster that included nine players under age 24. He navigated those challenges to help the team's power play and penalty kill rank seventh and ninth, respectively.
Krueger was fired during a Skype call with then-general manager Craig MacTavish, an experience that the former said fostered "no hard feelings." Though Krueger never has served as head coach for an entire 82-game season, Botterill and the Sabres were convinced the body of work will help Krueger navigate the ebbs and flows.
"The fact that he’s at least been on a staff in Edmonton for a couple years that’s been through an entire 82 games is certainly something that he learned a lot from, and that’s something that he brought up a lot," Botterill said. "It’s important to surround him with a good coaching staff that can help him out a lot. ... And I think trying to find ways to motivate your team over 82 games is certainly something. But the fact that he can bring a group together, he can motivate in-game a team in high-pressure situations was very intriguing for us."
Krueger's coaching career began with a seven-year stint behind the bench for VEU Feldkirch, including five-straight Austrian championships, an experience that led to him author a best-selling book in German on leadership and motivational skills titled, "Teamlife: Over Setbacks to Success."
Krueger then took over the Swiss national team, leading the country in 18 tournaments over 13 seasons, including 12 World Championship and three Winter Olympics. That included two upsets in 2006, beginning with a win over Czech Republic.
Yet, Krueger's time leading players from eight different countries during the 12-day World Cup of Hockey in 2016 may have a greater impact on how he approaches his new job.
"It was quite a surprising group, but it also confirmed the way I’d like to operate as a coach in the National Hockey League," he explained. "I think when I was in Edmonton I was still searching for the proper style, and it was an opportunity at the highest level against the best players in the world to test a system of play which will be the core of what we’ll be implementing here. ... It’s certainly helped me a lot to have that experiment."
Though Krueger's six-year absence from the ever-changing NHL presents challenges, he has kept in touch with coaches around the sport and has continued to watch games while monitoring how the league has changed.
Krueger plans to utilize analytics without "handcuffing" players and wants to implement a modern, aggressive style that balances defensive pressure with using speed in the offensive attack. He believes the Sabres' roster will allow for a seamless transition, though he noted the importance of an experienced coaching staff.
Krueger will join Botterill in Slovakia next week to meet with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, both of whom are competing at the IIHF World Championship. The new coach is expected to arrive in Buffalo after the scouting combine, which will be held May 31 through June 1.
Then Krueger will embark on a mission to accomplish where so many coaches have failed in Buffalo.
"I think that I’m at heart, of course, an optimistic coach and an optimistic person, but I don’t believe I’m a dreamer," Krueger said. "I believe I’m a realist, and I’m looking at what I see here."