Why Krueger Went Bar Hopping in Buffalo

Coffee and beer. In the simplest form, it’s what separates Dan Bylsma from Ralph Krueger.

Two years ago, after another disappointing season, then-Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray suggested that then-Sabres head coach Dan Byslma needed to “grab a cup of coffee and start talking to all his roster of millionaire players.” It was a jab at the fact that Bylsma spent endless hours watching video and worrying about systems and playing schemes yet could’ve benefited more by getting to know his players. And while the media does not attend end-of-season exit interviews between the GM and the players, the comment was likely brought up by several Sabres.

Buffalo Sabres, NHL Draft
Tim Murray and Dan Byslma were both sent packing April 20, 2017. (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Murray and Bylsma were soon fired.

This past April, before he was named head coach of the Sabres, Ralph Krueger (and his wife, Glenda) went incognito during a weekend visit to Buffalo. The Kruegers wanted to get a vibe for the city and its fans, so they went bar hopping in stealth mode, chatting up Buffalo’s hockey-loving residents without acknowledging their identities.

“He actually spent a weekend here, went to a lot of different establishments, I guess a little bit undercover,” said Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. “I don’t think that’ll be able to happen as he moves on here.”

Bar Hopping in Buffalo

Krueger, 59, is not a household name in Buffalo. He’s not a recognizable face that stops fans in their tracks. He used his anonymity to his advantage, enjoying conversations with fans watching NHL playoff games. He went bar hopping, never staying at one location for more than one period. (Fast forward to roughly 10 minutes in to hear Krueger describe his visit.)

“It was quite interesting. I’d sit beside Sabres fans and have conversations that I won’t be able to have with them now. But it was very enlightening. I certainly could feel the spirit of the city. I loved the history, the architecture and just the size. I can feel it’s a hard-working community, and it’s a place that my wife and I feel very comfortable coming to live there, but of course above all the environment that I’ll be working in will be a match to what I was looking for.”

Krueger and his wife prefer smaller cities to big ones. And they quickly sensed a warmth to the City of Good Neighbors, one of Buffalo’s many nicknames. It didn’t take long for them to understand that there’s a passion for hockey. “That is important to me,” added Krueger. “There’s a history there that I as a coach have always found important to be working in an environment where there’s a responsibility.

Ralph Krueger
Ralph Krueger went undercover to get a feel for the city of Buffalo and its fans. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

“We matter in Buffalo, and that matters to me as a head coach. I want that pressure. I want that responsibility if I’m going to work in an environment. We’re an important part of what Buffalo is all about.”

While simple in approach, it was a thoughtful way for Krueger to get a feel for the city and its hockey fans. It was also a window into his character.

The Intrigue of Krueger

Krueger is {thunderclap}, The Most Interesting Coach in Buffalo. One almost expected him to declare, “I don’t always coach in the NHL. But when I do, I coach lottery teams from 2015.”

Related: Krueger Steps Into Sabres Hot Seat

Though he has limited experience as an NHL head coach (just 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Edmonton Oilers, he is well-respected and highly regarded in the hockey world. He spent three seasons in total with the Oilers behind the bench.

Krueger was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and played hockey professionally in Germany from 1979 to 1991.

Krueger’s Resume

Krueger has had success at coaching at the international level. He coached Switzerland’s national team to Olympic appearances in 2002, 2006 and 2010, took Team Europe on a surprising run at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, was part of several World Championships and served as a special advisor under Mike Babcock when Canada won Olympic gold in 2014 at Sochi.

Ralph Krueger,
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

“We also put a lot of stock into his experience at the World Championships, the World Cup, at the Olympics. Those are high-pressure situations where you have to make adjustments. You have to make quick decisions and he got results in those situations,” said Botterill who had conversations with Krueger two years ago before eventually hiring Phil Housley. Despite interest, Krueger said he was going to honor his contract with Premier League in England.

For the last five years has, Krueger has been focused on soccer. He was the director of the Southampton Football Club in the Premier League in England, and was then made the chairman of the League. He is known for being an innovator in hockey strategies, developing young talent and being a motivator. He draws on advancements in sports science and analytics.

Krueger is the Sabres 19th head coach in franchise history. He inherits a franchise that has an NHL-worst eight-year playoff drought. And he replaces Phil Housley, who was fired after coaching the team to just 16 wins in their last 57 games.

Krueger’s deal is reportedly for three years at $4 million annually.

High Marks for Krueger

Doing his diligence before extending an offer, Botterill spoke to several players worked under Krueger and several coaches who worked alongside him. Many sung his praises as a communicator and gave their highest recommendation for him being a good fit for the Sabres.

“He’s one of my favorite people. He’s such a good people person. He’s a great talker. He remembers names. He really, really cares about people. He doesn’t care about your best player. He cares about every single guy on the team, and he will make you feel that way. –Thomas Vanek, 14-year NHL veteran” (from ‘As Sabres tab Ralph Krueger to become their next coach, one of the team’s former stars sings his praises’, The Athletic – 5/14/19)

Thomas Vanek Sabres
Thomas Vanek is a big fan of Kreuger. (Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

“This is a great hire. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s maximized people’s potential whether you’re a skater or a trainer or part of the management group. He maximizes human potential, and I think he’ll do all of that and more in Buffalo.” –Tom Renney, CEO of Hockey Canada and former NHL coach

“I really like the hire. I think it’s a great fit for the Buffalo Sabres.” – John Buccigross, a former ESPN hockey analyst.

“Nobody I know has said a negative word about #RalphKrueger. When it’s officially announced that Ralphie is the @BuffaloSabres new coach, Western New York fans should go into transports of joy. Good man; good coach; wonderful opportunity.” –Stan Fischler, hockey broadcaster

“For Buffalo Sabres’ fans Ralph Krueger is like a Jurgen Klopp-type from Liverpool. Positive energy guy, who empowers his players. Has some interesting concepts with PP, and puck support defensively. He is the “Dos Equis” guy of the Sports World. A ballsy hire by Botterill.” –Bob Stauffer, Edmonton Oilers radio analyst and host of “Oilers Now “

“He’s had great experience, and every experience whether it’s good or bad you grow from. He’s been around enough that he knows how to handle people so he won’t have any trouble that way.” –Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs coach and Team Canada colleague at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Mike Babcock Coach Red Wings
Mike Babcock had Krueger on his staff during the 2014 Olympics. (Icon SMI)

Krueger’s Faces Uphill Climb in Buffalo

Krueger wants to ice an aggressive team, but is well aware that his roster will heavily influence his game plan. “I will do everything within my power to find out what this group is made of very quickly and to get us into that competitive space for much longer than the team was able to get into last season,” said an optimistic Krueger. “I don’t believe I’m a dreamer. I believe I’m a realist, and I’m looking at what I see here. I know we’re going to work hard through the summer to add some pieces and to make some adjustments in the roster.”

Related: The NHL’s Coaching Merry-Go-Round

Sabres fans are a beaten down bunch these days. For good reason. It’s depressing when your team finishes in the basement three times in six seasons. Since the franchise’s deliberate tank, fans have been fed a steady diet of hope, with a side order of smoke and mirrors from the team. There have been marketing slogans such as, “the next chapter” and “actions, not words.” Hollow words.

It’s not surprising many Blue & Gold faithful are feeling numb. They’ve been forced to drink an outrageous volume of company Kool-Aid over the last decade. But now, with Krueger at the helm–a guy that flew across the pond to belly up to several Buffalo bars to get a feel for things–there may be authentic reason for optimism. At least he doesn’t need to be told to grab a cup of java to get a beat on things. He simply went to a pub.