WINNIPEG – Ralph Krueger has spent all season talking about the importance of his team minimizing distractions and keeping the picture small. He got a chance to put his own philosophies to work here Tuesday night.
The finale of the Buffalo Sabres' road trip was a return home for Krueger, his first game as an NHL coach in his hometown coming at age 60. When Krueger coached the Edmonton Oilers in the 2013 lockout season, the Winnipeg Jets were still in the Eastern Conference in the place once occupied by the Atlanta Thrashers.
So Krueger didn't get the chance to return to the place where he attended the prestigious St. John's Ravenscourt private school and developed an interest in leadership that pointed him to coaching. This trip comes with Krueger more than a tad preoccupied, as the Sabres entered the contest in Bell MTS Place on a three-game losing streak that shredded their playoff hopes.
"I did meet with some family last night but it's just that the National Hockey League keeps you in a very unique space," Krueger said after the Sabres' morning meetings. "You're just taking care of your next task, getting ready for the next phase, trying to work with the lineup, trying to find something good and valuable to grow and learn from the last games. You don't really leave the space of execution that you're in as a coach."
One of Krueger's best Winnipeg-based friends was on the opposing bench Tuesday night. Krueger and Jets coach Paul Maurice have built a friendship over the last 10 years that culminated in Maurice serving as Krueger's assistant for Team Europe during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Maurice and Krueger became friends during Maurice's second stint with the Carolina Hurricanes, from 2008-2012. Krueger, while coaching Switzerland's national team, did European scouting and player recruitment work for the Hurricanes. They remain close, often communicating during the season and spending time together in the summer at cottages in Lake of the Woods, Manitoba.
"I've stolen a lot more from him than he's stolen from me, that's for sure," Maurice said. "He's an interesting man and when you get a chance to sit down and talk hockey with him, it lasts for hours. He's engaging, he has unusual viewpoints but he's very articulate and can communicate exceptionally well. I've enjoyed our relationship very much.
"You leave not just after a hockey conversation, but a life conversation, very energized. He's one of those guys who can get you going, get you excited about life. It's been a real find for me as a friend. Later in your years, you don't run across a lot of new people that impact you but he's had a big impact on the way I look at things."
Prior to the Jets' visit to Buffalo last week, Krueger gave huge credit to Maurice for being able to get another chance at coaching in the NHL. Krueger said regular contact with Maurice kept him in tune with the NHL while he was serving as president of Southampton FC in the English Premier League.
"We kept in permanent touch in the off season and the season," Krueger said. "Just a lot of fun. We have a little extra wager here on these two games in a very short period of time. It's all friendly, trust me. It's always nice to run into people that you've exchanged so much with and experienced so much with. I've known him well over 10 years now. It's obvious we have many principles that are the same."
Krueger and Maurice led Team Europe to a surprising berth in the '16 World Cup final against Team Canada and Maurice insists Krueger can get the Sabres out of their dark times.
"A real smart hire. He's a good hockey man and he's a really strong leader," Maurice said. "He's got the discipline that comes from maturity when you're building what he's doing here in building a young team. He does a nice job of not inundating players with so much detail that they can't function and play. I think you see that with some of the creativity you see with Buffalo."