Ralph Krueger's eyes swelled with tears as he stood among the crowd of 12,500 inside Stockholm's Ericsson Globe on May 19, 2013. Only a few weeks removed from his first season as a head coach in the National Hockey League, Krueger watched the fruits of what he calls his "life work" — Switzerland winning its first silver medal at the IIHF World Championship with a 5-1 loss to Sweden.
Sixteen years earlier, Swiss hockey fans and media bristled when the gregarious, effervescent coach mentioned his goal of winning a medal on the sport's biggest stage. Watching the realization of that dream remains one of Krueger's fondest hockey memories, despite his not being behind the bench.
"I'm extremely proud of what's happened to the program," said Krueger, now coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
Krueger did not win a medal during his 13 years as Swiss coach; however, he did reshape the national team from a group of complacent club players into one of hockey's global powers and a hotbed for NHL talent. The project is similar to the one he has inherited in Buffalo, where the Sabres own the league's longest playoff drought.
Krueger's latest project is equipped with far more talent and, in his opinion, is closer to achieving its goal. The 60-year-old coach, though, is applying the same motivational techniques, defensive foundation on ice and patient approach that made Swiss hockey competitive against the best in the world.
"It's very similar, actually," said Krueger, who coached the Swiss from 1997 to 2010 before leaving for the Edmonton Oilers. "When you come into a program where there is a lot of baggage from the past that you're trying to shake off ... Switzerland was not a consistent A group team, which is hard to believe today, but it was a program that needed a big reboot. This one doesn't need a reboot. There is a way stronger foundation. We're way further along.
"But we're still a long ways away from being — I always say there are 10, 10, 10 in the NHL. There are 10 at the bottom, 10 in the middle and 10 at the top. You want to move into the 10 in the middle, first of all. We're realistic about that and I think we have a lot of hard work to do. It's a project for sure. ... It's going to be a question of time. This is going to go much faster than what I experienced in Switzerland, for sure."
'The belief started right away'
Patrick Fischer recalled with vivid detail the somber mood in the Swiss dressing room more than 21 years later. He and his teammates had just lost to Sweden, 4-2, in the second game of the 1998 IIHF World Championship, and there was an overwhelming sense that an early exit was inevitable.
Switzerland only qualified because it was hosting the tournament. The country was ranked 16th in the world and finished third in the B pool one year earlier. As dread began to set in among the Swiss, Krueger walked into the room at Hallenstadion in Zurich and reminded his players they only needed to beat France by four goals to move to the next round.
"Right there he changed our mindset," said Fischer, now 44 and coach of the Swiss National Team. "Instead of us being down, within 20 seconds we thought, 'OK, let's go.' The belief started right away."
The Swiss won their next game by exactly four goals and opened the second round with a 4-2 win against Russia before losing both games in the semifinals to finish fourth behind Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. The tournament was a watershed moment for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and the entire country, which had not experienced much success in a team sport during international competition.
This was what Peter Zahner, the Swiss National Team general manager until 2007, envisioned when he plucked Krueger from the Austrian Hockey League in 1997.
Krueger was 38 when he led VEU Feldkirch to an unprecedented victory against Dynamo Moscow to win the European Hockey League, a tournament that included 24 of the top professional clubs from across the continent. His success in Austria gave him instant credibility with the Swiss players.
The media and fans, on the other hand, weren't receptive to Krueger's promise of a turnaround.
"He was not very well-known, so the people in Switzerland, media and whoever, felt, 'Who is Ralph Krueger?' " Zahner said. "He gave our players a clear message that we wanted to be successful at the world championship in 1998. At that time, in Switzerland, the players played the national team games with an attitude not to lose. Ralph changed that attitude. He told them to play to win."
Krueger's plan, though, required a cultural change within the program, an emphasis on playing well defensively and a few difficult decisions.
The motivational speeches fell on some deaf ears. Veterans on the Swiss national teams resisted Krueger's approach to off-ice fitness. He wanted players to approach their craft as if it were a year-round job and immediately implemented fitness testing, as well as a focus on sports science. Fischer, who was 22 when Krueger took over, said that the Swiss tend to "take time to make decisions." Krueger also stressed the importance of body language and ran his players through team-building exercises.
Some players weren't willing to make the sacrifice needed to be in top shape for the world championship, since salaries for the national team paled in comparison to what they made from their respective professional teams in Switzerland.
"At first, we were like, 'Ahh,' " Fischer recalled. "We really weren't that professional. When Ralph came he started to [really get on us]. We had to do tests because he knew we weren't in shape like we should be since we had an easy life in Switzerland and not much competition. ... We had to do it, though. Otherwise you weren't going to be on the team."
Not all players realized that, though. With the Swiss not qualified for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, they organized a home-and-home exhibition series against a Canadian team that Zahner described as "goons."
Brawls broke out during the four games. The incidents struck fear in the Swiss players, Zahner said. Six weeks later, the Swiss played poorly during a four-game series against the same team in Canada. It was a disastrous tuneup to the 1998 IIHF World Championship, which Switzerland was set to host.
Two days before the Swiss were to gather for their pre-tournament selection camp, Krueger cut four prominent players.
"This world championship, that was his first with Switzerland, the name Ralph Krueger was well-known around the country," Zahner said. "Not only because of the success, but the way he took his job so serious. He could have made his life easier by taking the big names. ... That was never his attitude. His attitude was always I want to have the best team. I don't need the best players."
Switzerland was always going to be a long-term project for Krueger. He received calls from European clubs and the NHL during his time in Switzerland but did not intend to leave until his children, Justin and Geena, were out of school. With that in mind, he and Zahner hosted a symposium with every coach in the junior and senior national programs.
If Swiss hockey were to compete with the global powers long-term, every coach and player, no matter the age group or level, needed to know Krueger's system and deliver the same positive message. His thinking was that doing so would build a sustainable player development model, helping to ease the transition for junior players once they were called up to the national team.
Krueger initiated the same plan once he took over the Sabres, gathering the coaching staffs from Rochester and Cincinnati to develop one consistent style of play and verbiage.
"We need to have the same habits, we need to have the same goals, the same education," said Jakob Kolliker, an assistant coach under Krueger from 1997 to 2010. "They needed to know how we train. Ralph initiated that thinking in the federation, and that's important. Ralph initiated everything here in Switzerland for the hockey development. The professionalism, the details, how we have to work.
Krueger's plan wouldn't have been possible several years earlier. When Zahner took over as general manager in 1991, he had to explain to the federation's president, Rene Fasel, that an increased budget was needed so the junior and senior national teams could travel to play elite competition. Exhibition games against Romania weren't helping the Swiss prepare for the world championship.
Fasel complied, but Zahner had trouble finding a willing competitor. The latter recalled Czech officials laughing at an invitation for the two countries' Under-18 teams to face each other, and Zahner had to agree to a series in which the Swiss played against younger competition.
Krueger brought respectability. Success in 1998 led to invitations for the Swiss to face world powers such as Sweden and Finland in exhibitions ahead of the world championship. The next step was convincing his players they weren't there to simply play the role of spoiler.
"The problem in Switzerland was never the speed or technical qualities," Zahner said. "The problem was the mentality. Ralph was able to get them to believe they could do it."
'Pain and adversity'
Each member of the Swiss National Team received a text message from Krueger during the evening of May 2, 2000, less than 24 hours before they were scheduled to play host Russia in Saint Petersburg's Ice Palace for their final pool play game of the IIHF World Championship:
"Believe in the impossible and the impossible becomes possible."
The Swiss, fielding a lineup of zero NHL players, lost to France, 4-2, in their previous game and faced long odds against the Russians, whose star-studded lineup featured Hall of Fame forward Pavel Bure. Switzerland used Krueger's defensive structure to score three unanswered goals in a 4-2 win, eliminating Russia in front of its own fans.
"It was like the movie 'Rocky' where Rocky fought in Russia against freaking Ivan Drago," Fischer recalled. "It sounds like the same story. We did it. I still don't know how we did it because we didn't have a chance. If you would have had people in Switzerland vote in 2000 for who they wanted to be president, I think they would have voted for Ralph Krueger."
Though the tournament ended with a sixth-place finish after a quarterfinal loss to Canada, Krueger's players began to believe they were capable of competing against the best in the world and set the stage for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which he referred to as "the toughest tournament of my life."
Despite its success under Krueger, Switzerland was one of 12 teams forced to play qualifying-round games ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. With his players possessing high-end skill and strong defensive habits, Krueger decided to change his system to try to coax more offense.
The result was an 11th-place finish during a tumultuous trip to the United States. Following a 5-2 loss to Ukraine that ended the Swiss' chance of reaching the quarterfinals, two of Krueger's veteran players, former team captain Reto von Arx and Marcel Jenni, reportedly missed curfew and did not return to the Olympic Village until 7 a.m. the next day.
Krueger dismissed both players in what Kolliker called "a big crash in the team." Krueger never admitted publicly that his strategic shift was a failure. Instead, he spoke to the media about the experience being part of the building process. In addition to another strategic shift after Salt Lake City, he chose to revamp his roster with younger players, beginning another phase in his plan that resulted in a defining moment for the program and country.
"We tried to go a little bit more offensive and we weren't ready for it," Krueger said. "We were very disappointed. ... There were some discipline problems off-ice, and I have to say it was just amazing how that unbelievable pain and adversity of 2002 launched us towards 2006 and 2010, where we were really competitive right until the end of both tournaments.
"We needed that adversity, we needed that pain, to actually grow ourselves. Salt Lake City was the toughest tournament of my life, ever. I learned the most out of that tournament. I would never, ever want to miss that in my life or on my resume."
More than 13 years have passed since the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, yet Krueger still grows excitable when recalling the events of Feb. 16, 2006.
With Wayne Gretzky as general manager and Pat Quinn as head coach, Canada had a roster that featured Martin Brodeur, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Sakic and Martin St. Louis, among others. Switzerland, meanwhile, was led by only one NHL skater, Mark Streit, a 28-year-old defenseman in his first season with the Montreal Canadiens; Fischer; goalie Martin Gerber; and forward Paul DiPietro, who was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"If you were to look across the ice when we were in Torino, if there was a salary cap at those tournaments, most of the other teams wouldn't have been able to play," joked Peter John Lee, an assistant coach under Krueger from 2000 to 2010.
"That was one of those games where we had no chance," Fischer added. "That was one of those games if you played them 90 times we lose 88 times. Was it a tactical, absolute heroic game from us? No."
Krueger learned from his mistake the previous Winter Olympics. He knew an emphasis on defense was the Swiss' only chance at upsetting the Canadians, so much so that he sent his penalty-killing unit on the ice for a power play because he wanted to avoid a shorthanded goal.
Unlike the opposition, the Swiss roster was not built as an All-Star team. Krueger and his staff picked players to fill specific roles, much like an NHL general manager constructs a roster. He's implemented a similar structure in Buffalo, emphasizing the importance of checking-line players such as Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Vladimir Sobotka.
Kolliker estimated that Canada possessed the puck "over 70% of the game" and that Switzerland spent "maybe 50 minutes in our own end." Yet DiPietro scored twice and Gerber had a 49-save shutout in a 2-0 win to finish higher than Canada in the group stage.
"That showed us we can do it," Fischer said. "When all the stars were aligned right, we could win. I always say Ralph put us on the map. He taught us how to play good defensive hockey."
"That was Switzerland's best win in 50 years," Kolliker added. "We made a step, mentally, to move forward. This game was unbelievable for the whole hockey program in Switzerland."
"That was unbelievable," Zahner recalled. "It was belief. The players believed we could beat those guys. That's what Ralph changed."
Switzerland finished sixth after a loss to Sweden. However, its wins over Canada and Czech Republic were arguably the biggest in its history and shifted the thinking of a country that thought it would never be able to compete against the best.
"We didn't win a medal at the tournament, but it gave the guys confidence and it was the beginning," Krueger said. "Mark Streit became a star in the NHL and everything seemed to kick off from there. The respect level for Switzerland on that day, because of the people in the stands, with Gretzky sitting there and the coaches at that time, they certainly went, 'What happened?' That win on the world stage at the Olympics was the turning point in the program for sure."
Michel Riesen had just completed his second season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League when he returned to Switzerland for training camp ahead of the 2000 world championships.
The media mobbed Riesen to learn of his experience and he was viewed as a pioneer. The NHL seemed unattainable to many young players at the time. A silver medal two years earlier was the only significant success by the national team, and North American scouts seemed to have little interest in the country's players despite their speed and skill on the ice.
Riesen became the first Swiss forward in the NHL in 2000-01 but played only 12 games for the Edmonton Oilers. Streit's second attempt at playing professionally in North America led to a 12-year NHL career, and he became an idol to young players across the nation.
"I'm proud that it was a sustainable foundation that we built and a courageous style of play that they continued to build on," said Krueger, who left for an assistant coaching position with the Oilers in 2010. "Those kids that I was watching as 9- or 10-year-olds when I was the coach are now — I watched Nico Hischier in a highlight reel last night or Kevin Fiala the other night. I'm very proud of that."
There are 13 active Swiss players in the NHL, including Hischier, who was drafted first overall in 2017, and Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi. Fifteen Swiss players have been drafted in the past five years.
Following 1998, Switzerland never finished higher than fifth at the world championship under Krueger. However, since he left, they have won silver medals in 2013 and 2018. Now, Switzerland is one of eight nations invited to the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, an annual Under-18 junior tournament featuring the top developmental national team programs.
"We don't have to hide anymore," Hischier, a center for the New Jersey Devils, said recently at KeyBank Center. "We have close games against the top countries. It didn't used to be like that. We can compete with the bigger countries, and Swiss hockey does a great job developing players."
"The dream expanded," said Fischer, who played 27 games in the NHL for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006-07.
Krueger spent two seasons as an associate coach with the Oilers and one as their head coach in 2012-13 before he joined English Premier League's Southampton F.C. as chairman. He has emphasized the importance of patience since arriving in Buffalo, maintaining a positive message to his players and the media following losses.
Krueger must navigate his team through a chaotic 82-game schedule, and he does not have to rebuild the organization from the ground up like he did with the Swiss National Team. He changed an entire country's mentality, though, much like he may have to do in Buffalo, where an eight-year playoff drought hovers over a group of players who have grown frustrated by a lack of success.
"We're at the point where in Switzerland, people tell me on the streets that this year we're going to win the gold medal," Fischer said. "The mindset is right. They want to win. We're starting to think like the Swedes, Fins and Czechs. Ralph is one of the pillars of that movement."