Life in Switzerland for Ralph Krueger is similar to what his assistant coaches and players are experiencing across the globe.
Krueger has practiced social distancing since returning home last week amid the coronavirus pandemic. His days are spent making phone calls in his home office or exercising, and he described there being a "fear factor in the air" around Switzerland.
There are conversations with General Manager Jason Botterill about possible college or international free-agent signings, and Krueger held a conference call with his assistant coaches Monday to discuss how they can best prepare their players if the Sabres resume their regular season with 13 games remaining.
Krueger is also preparing for the possibility that his first season as Sabres' coach is over, though he expressed hope that they will have the opportunity to finish what they started. Typically jovial even in the aftermath of defeat, the 60-year-old's voice carried a solemn tone when he spoke to the media during a conference call Monday morning.
"We’re people that are used to clear destinations; we know exactly where we’re going," said Krueger. "Whether it’s in a good time or bad, whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable, we know where we’re going and we’re in control of our reaction and, at the moment, all of us feel out of control and we all feel uncertainty and we all feel discomfort."
There is a heightened sense of anxiety in Switzerland, Krueger said. Health care systems of neighboring nations are overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, causing border closures and stay-at-home directives similar to those that have been levied in the United States.
The situation weighed on Krueger days before the Sabres' season was officially suspended March 12. His son, Justin, plays professionally in Switzerland, where games were held in empty arenas before the season was canceled. Krueger developed friendships across Europe while playing and coaching on the continent. He also served as chairman of Southampton FC, in the English Premier League and worked with the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
Public speaking engagements introduced Krueger to the corporate world in Europe, which, along with the global economy, has been decimated since the pandemic began.
Yet a possible pause on the Sabres' season did not become a reality for Sabres players until March 11, when they learned during a team dinner in Montreal that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. The NBA promptly suspended its season, forcing the NHL to take steps to do the same.
"Everything kind of started unraveling from there," said Krueger. "We weren’t sure where that would take us."
The Sabres' coaching staff boarded a team bus the following morning to continue preparing for the night's game against the Canadiens. Krueger and his assistants were told to return to the team hotel shortly before they arrived at Bell Centre.
The players, coaches and management then awaited word on whether they would play that night or return to Buffalo. They learned their fate that afternoon, when the NHL announced it suspended its regular season. Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed hope the schedule would resume at a later date with the goal of awarding the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, the Sabres quickly boarded a plane and monitored how ongoing global developments related to the coronavirus could affect their family and friends.
"Jason Botterill spoke to the team and we found out the reality of our situation, and it was shocking at the time," added Krueger. "We were high intensity into the season, and suddenly the ground just fell out from underneath us. We’re extremely disappointed that we weren’t able to play those 13 games to date, and hopefully something still pops up here and we’re still hanging on to that hope. The day itself was shocking."
The NHL and NHL Players' Association initially planned to have team facilities re-open to players following a mandatory six-day self-quarantining period. However, the severity of the public health crisis caused the league to alter its plan, and players were permitted to return to the city in which they permanently reside, including outside North America.
Bettman expressed hope that a training-camp period can be held after 45 days with a plan to resume the season shortly thereafter. Two Ottawa Senators players have since tested positive for the coronavirus, raising further questions about how long the NHL will be on hiatus.
Krueger is working with his staff to plan for how they can best prepare the Sabres to regain their form in the event their season can resume. Players are currently limited to off-ice workouts and some European nations are discouraging citizens from going outdoors.
"As we all know, it’s an extremely challenging situation," Krueger said. "At the moment, the pause is the best word. We’re only just over a week into this, and we’ve kind of left the players alone for now. The coaches, we’re in a ready mode – if for some reason we get a chance to play some games, we’ll be able to take the guys quickly into a minicamp and reactivate them. The players are well aware they need to stay physically fit, and the contact that I’m having with individuals players is clear that they’re doing their best under the circumstances to train."
Krueger acknowledged he has "withdrawal" from hockey. The abrupt suspension of the season prevented the Sabres from improving their 30-31-8 record and young players might not experience valuable lessons that presented in the final weeks. One of his next tasks is to lead a webinar with more than 400 coaches from nine European ice hockey federations as part of the NHL Coaches' Association Mentorship Program, an online initiative that began Friday.
While planning for hockey's return has kept Krueger preoccupied, he explained the only "pain" he's experiencing is for those affected by the coronavirus.
"It’s one of those where sports will be very important out the other end of this; I know that," said Krueger. "We just have to be ready when that call comes, that we do our part to get the world in motion in the right direction again. Not only is the NHL on pause right now, most of the countries in the western world are on pause or in the world, period."