Acouple of days after Ralph Krueger was named coach of the Buffalo Sabres, he and Jack Eichel got together in Kosice, Slovakia, at the World Championship for an afternoon coffee that morphed into a full-blown dinner. Later in the summer, Krueger travelled to Boston to meet with Eichel again, and they talked over the phone several times in the off-season. They even got around to talking about hockey sometimes.
It never came up that the Sabres have been in the NHL for 50 years without winning the Stanley Cup. Eichel did not roll his eyes into the back of his head when he listened to what would be his third coach in five years spew nothing but positivity. Not once did they talk about an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs in eight years and hasn’t won a post-season round since Season 1 of Mad Men. Nor did they discuss the never-ending soap opera that has been the Buffalo Sabres. “Obviously we talked about hockey,” Eichel said, “but we talked about everything from politics to cars to rock and roll. He is just the type of person you can talk to about anything.”
And that’s where the seeds of the relationship that will dictate the destiny of this team were first planted. ‘The Most Interesting Man in the (Hockey) World’ and ‘The Eichel Tower,’ a best-selling author in Europe by way of Winnipeg and a whiz kid from Boston who is part of a dizzying wave of young American talent, are now the faces of a franchise that has been promising greener pastures for the better part of the past decade.
The Sabres have gone from an owner who was led away in handcuffs to a billionaire savior who bought the team after three unsuccessful bids to become state governor to another billionaire who has essentially revitalized downtown Buffalo but can’t seem to stay out of his own way when it comes to hockey decisions.
The Sabres have the NHL’s longest active playoff drought and through the first quarter of the season were trying to prevent the Disaster of 2018 from becoming the Debacle of 2019. Last season, the Sabres pulled a reverse St. Louis Blues, going from first overall at U.S. Thanksgiving in the midst of a 10-game win streak to missing the playoffs by 22 points. That’s really difficult to do.
We talked about everything from politics to cars to rock and roll
– Jack Eichel
This year, after starting 8-1-1 and once again sitting atop the NHL standings, they had dropped 17 places by the season’s quarter mark and were, once again, on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin went from finishing third in Calder Trophy voting last season to struggling through a disastrous sophomore campaign, both by the analytic and eye-test standards.
Crowds that once filled the KeyBank Center on the basis of hope were staying away, with a number of games played before more than 3,000 empty seats. Plenty of tickets available. It’s almost as though the good people of Western New York are starting to think they’ve been sold a bill of goods.
Building on his 82-point season a year ago, Eichel continues to rise to the upper echelon of NHL stars. But there’s also the sense in Buffalo that as far as producing offense is concerned, if Jack isn’t going to do it, jack ain’t gonna get done.
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Krueger has seen this kind of thing before, of course. Don’t forget, he was the coach of that titanic disaster known as the Edmonton Oilers for a season.
But it was actually in his second year behind a bench that he experienced both his nadir and epiphany as a coach. The season was 1992-93, and the team was VEU Feldkirch in the Austrian League. Three of his four import players were injured. The team was terrible and in complete disarray. But back home in Winnipeg, Krueger’s mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that would take her life not long after that.
When Krueger was going through his father’s archives about a decade ago, he found a letter that he had written to his mother in the midst of that awful time. “I wrote to her, ‘I know I’m in the right place,’ and I was really excited about it,” Krueger said. “I found that letter about 15 years later, and that just got me shaking. So it was in my deepest, darkest moment as a developing coach that I knew I was in the right place.”
What Krueger had come to realize that season was he had unlimited and untapped potential as a leader. He loved the challenge of the situation and relished the opportunity to persevere through adversity, something that will serve him well with the Sabres.
His ability to lead through the bad times got him through that season, then VEU Feldkirch won the league title each of the next five seasons until the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation took notice of Krueger’s work and hired him to coach their national team.
In his last season with Feldkirch, the team won the European Hockey League – the forerunner to the IIHF’s Champions League – with an enormous upset victory over Dynamo Moscow in the final. Krueger’s ability to build cohesiveness through adversity launched a motivational speaking career, landed him a position with the World Economic Forum and resulted in Teamlife: Beyond Setbacks to Success, a best-selling book written in German.
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Eichel has been here before, too, literally and metaphorically. He has lived through a healthy amount of upheaval since being picked second overall, one selection after Connor McDavid, in 2015.
The Sabres have been in a constant uphill rebuild, and there has been almost no depth at forward in this organization since his arrival. The disastrous trade of Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2018 left a gaping hole at center beyond Eichel, one that Casey Mittelstadt has yet to fill.
That leaves Eichel to face all the most difficult matchups pretty much on his own. It’s enough to wear a guy down after a while. And with zero games of playoff experience and another season that could be on the precipice of swirling down a sinkhole, the losing can be a little draining, too. But Eichel, who will be the first to admit he takes losses really hard and can get a little gloomy when they pile up, has seen a difference this season. “I don’t know, it’s been good this year,” Eichel said. “Even through a little adversity here, or whatever you might call it, it’s been a bit easier to come to the rink every day and just do your work. The environment that has been created here is one that’s competitive and enjoyable, but not one where it seems like everyone is walking around on eggshells.”
Believe me, I can be ruthless for the cause. I have 52 stitches in my face
– Ralph Krueger
Of course, some of that comes from a growing perspective and maturity in Eichel. If you take losses too much to heart, the way he did earlier in his career, it’s going to be difficult to get through an 82-game season. He still hates losing, but Eichel is able to compartmentalize those feelings. The same goes for the games when he looks as though he’s ready to break through as one of the league’s top players.
On both sides of the equation, he knows there’s another game in a couple days, one that will provide an opportunity for redemption if things didn’t go well or the challenge to do it again if things did go well.
One of Eichel’s best friends in and out of hockey is Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who played with Eichel at Boston University in 2014-15, the only season Eichel spent in college and one in which he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player.
Grzelcyk has seen Eichel get frustrated. He could just tell by watching his friend’s body language on the ice and in post-game interviews, but he is seeing less of it now. “Maybe sometimes he comes off as frustrated with his teammates, but a lot of times I think he’s really hard on himself and kind of puts the blame on himself even though it doesn’t come off that way,” Grzelcyk said.
“Just talking with him, he’s done a good job of fixing that, and I think it’s gone a long way with his teammates. I think they’ve kind of earned his trust, and it seems he’s giving more trust to them to make plays. He’s quicker to notice when things are going wrong and be a little more vocal but in a positive way. Over an 82-game season, you don’t want to be negative all the time. It can wear on you, and he’s doing a good job with that.”
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For his part, Krueger acknowledges it has been a tough go for everyone in Buffalo – management, the players, the fans. “It’s going to come, I believe it’s going to come,” Krueger said. “There’s so much skill and so many hungry individuals right now that have had a lot of pain in their past, and we can profit from that because their desire and hunger to do the right thing is there. I can see it in the spirit of the group. And I can see it on the bench. And I can see it when we have defeats, how they’re processing it, with a healthy amount of pain and not a ‘Poor me,’ feeling sorry for themselves.”
If Eichel needed anyone to lift his spirits, he’s found it in Krueger, a guy who could convince Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore he had a legitimate shot at winning the Triple Crown.
We all saw during the World Cup of Hockey what Krueger was capable of when he took Team Europe, the Miss Congeniality hockey-playing countries, to the final.
And as far as former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock is concerned, anyone who downplays Krueger’s contributions to the team that won gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi does so from a place of ignorance. This was a team that was so dominant that by the time they skated off the ice with the gold medals around their neck, anyone who watched all their games could recall by memory each goal the team gave up on account of there were only three of them in six games.
That was no accident, at least according to Hitchcock, who served as one of Mike Babcock’s assistants. Officially, Krueger was a consultant to the coaching staff, but unofficially, he was responsible for all the heavy lifting prior to the tournament. “I never felt more prepared in my life because of the work Ralph did,” Hitchcock said. “I felt I knew everything about every coach, everything about every team that played in Europe, and I didn’t do one ounce of work until we got there. Ralph did all the prep work, and all of us felt like we had coached for years against the opposition because we knew everything about them. He had it down to such detail, we knew exactly what the opposition was going to do.”
Krueger’s long-term work in the NHL hasn’t been as successful, but he gets a pass for his first tenure because…Edmonton. It’s in Buffalo where the league and the rest of the world is really going to see how he builds this thing, how he puts the foundation in place and places the bricks and mortar. It may take some time, but if the Sabres are patient, the growth process will transpire.
What Krueger is trying to do is build a culture in Buffalo. Now a lot of hockey people say that, but they haven’t worked with Fortune 500 companies in Germanic Europe doing just that and succeeding. They haven’t written best-sellers on the subject, and they don’t have Krueger’s life experience.
He has accomplished a lot for a guy who eschewed the opportunity to go to university to play pro hockey in Germany when he was 20. Krueger likes to use the word “organic” to describe his approach, meaning it emerges naturally and without artificial ingredients.
He treats his charges as people before he considers what they can contribute as players. In a result-oriented business, he looks far more closely at the process than he does at wins and losses. Honesty is paramount, whether it’s good or bad, and must be dispensed quickly and openly. “It’s my job to make sure there’s no opportunity for negative energy to come into spaces,” he said. “I’ll jump on a lack of respect for a teammate on the bench way harder than I will if a guy gets beaten 1-on-1.”
But don’t get him wrong, he doesn’t like players to get beaten, either, as evidenced by the fact he benched Dahlin for a period during a November game against Ottawa. “After he speaks, you can run through a wall,” Dahlin said. “If we play good, he tells us. And if we play bad, he tells us.”
And even though Krueger is a renaissance man, he’s not above the fray and is not afraid to be a hockey guy occasionally. In an interview with a British newspaper when he took the job as chairman of Southampton Football Club, he talked about how he has a dimple where a hockey stick went through his cheek. “Believe me, I can be ruthless for the cause,” he said. “I have 52 stitches in my face.”
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Eichel watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last spring 10 rows up from the ice at the TD Garden in Boston. The way he figured it, he had to give his dad something for Father’s Day, and Bob Eichel, who until recently managed the warehouse of a large plumbing company, really, really wanted to go to the game.
Jack also had a rooting interest in both teams – Grzelcyk on the Bruins and O’Reilly for the Blues. Eichel watched the game, stayed long enough to watch O’Reilly hoist the Cup, and then went home. Eichel is a beast in the gym, and the off-season of 2019 was no exception. But this time he got to see the Cup awarded in his hometown, and the image stuck with him. “I’m still a hockey fan, right?” Eichel said. “For me, it was an opportunity to see a great game. I mean, how often are you going to be able to see Game 7 of the final? Either way I was going to see one of my friends win the Stanley Cup, and you never know if you’ll be able to see that happen.”
Eichel didn’t clarify whether he was talking about his a friend winning the Stanley Cup or winning it himself. The Sabres have some work to do before they can be considered a legitimate contender. When and if they do establish themselves, there’s an excellent chance it will be fuelled by their two undisputed leaders – Jack Eichel and Ralph Krueger.
Both will show the way to the rest of the roster in different manners, but their mark will be indelible. Eichel is among a legion of people who say Krueger is the type of person who, after you speak to him, “you want to be a better person, a better human being.”
With that covered off, Eichel can concentrate on being a better player, not that he isn’t a superstar-in-the-making already. Through his first four seasons, Eichel’s impact on the lineup has been noticeable and proportionally increasing with every passing year. Only eight players have taken more shots than Eichel has since he entered the league, but there is still a perception in Buffalo he should shoot more, be more selfish and be less of a pass-first player. He’s still trying to negotiate that one.
He is now the captain, and there is no disputing his ability to be a leader. In the second year of an eight-year, $80-million contract, he has made his commitment to the Sabres and the Sabres to him. And even though they come from different ends of the spectrum, Krueger sees some similarities between him and his captain. “I think both of us like our alone space when we’re not with the Sabres,” Krueger said. “I feel we have similarities there. He has a lot of pressure on him, and he’s doing a good job at managing his private space. What he wants is really clear – to do everything he can to turn this into a successful, winning organization, and there has been nothing but a very natural process between us. It’s been very easy.”
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Speaking of natural, Krueger has come to Buffalo with no preconceived notions. And without any of the vestiges of his past. He never keeps binders of practice drills, instead remembering the ones that worked in the past from a catalogue in his head. And some of them are interesting and unique.
On this day during practice, players skate around passing the puck between one another, then when Krueger blows his whistle, it signals an instant 1-on-1 battle for the puck. Krueger is very big on 1-on-1 battles, that much is clear.
I never felt more prepared in my life because of the work Ralph did
– Ken Hitchcock
For all his worldliness, Krueger claims to be an uncomplicated man, and that includes the contents of his office. “I do that every time I take a job – I start from scratch,” Krueger said. “There are no binders in there. My room is sheng fui, there’s nothing in there. I have a glass table and everything is in my computer.”
What Krueger actually meant to say was feng shui, a Chinese practice that has something to do with your personal space being configured to harmonize the spiritual forces which inhabit it. If that’s what helps the Sabres win games, have at it.
And really, it’s not as though the Sabres are in any danger of having a meditation retreat break out in practice. But they’ve clearly found harmony between the players and their coach, starting with their best player, and that’s something they haven’t had in a long time.
Thinking outside the box might also get them outside that chasm they’ve been in for the past eight years. Maybe not right away, but eventually.