TORONTO (Reuters) - Ralph Krueger stood at the podium talking hockey but thinking soccer.
As the chairman of Premiership side Southampton FC, Krueger’s mind was on a far away Europa Cup match that was just getting underway against Sparta Prague.
As head coach of Team Europe, his focus was on the World Cup of Hockey and his team’s tournament opener the next day against the United States.
It would be a good start to both competitions for Krueger as Southampton claimed a 3-0 win over Sparta while Team Europe, a rag-tag collection of smaller hockey playing nations, shocked the mighty Americans by the same score.
The possibility of winning trophies at far ends of the sporting spectrum would seem the stuff of Hollywood fiction but a story that Krueger could make a reality.
To find a Canadian coaching at hockey’s top level is as common as snow in December at Krueger’s boyhood Winnipeg home but for a hockey man through-and-through who had no particular interest in soccer while growing up, the prospect of hoisting one of Europe’s grandest trophies would appear far-fetched.
“It is a complex life but I think the most interesting thing is how you can go from two different sports and feel the same base dynamics,” smiled Krueger. “I’ve taken so much of my life in hockey into the football world in England.
“It is exciting to be back here for a month in the hockey world. This journey has been running parallel to my football life and it is growth experience that I am very grateful for.”
Krueger has been described as the most interesting man in hockey - although he insists he is a “soccer guy” now.
Certainly the 57-year-old Canadian’s CV makes fascinating reading but is not one that screams out Premiership executive.
He played professional hockey in Germany then moved into the coaching ranks, taking over the Swiss national team and guiding them to three Olympic appearances (2002, 2006 and 2010) and multiple world championships.
In 2012 Krueger took over as head coach of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and was sacked after one season but he was not out of work long as he signed on as a special adviser to the Canadian Olympic team for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Away from the rink, Krueger worked with the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership where he came into contact with Katharina Liebherr, the Swiss owner of Southampton FC.
‘RENAISSANCE MAN’ VIEW
Liebherr was impressed enough by Krueger’s resume and a ‘renaissance man’ view of sport that she approached the Canadian, who was looking for a job and a new challenge.
“You know what, I’m more of a soccer guy now, that’s my real life,” Krueger told Reuters. “Hockey is my entertainment still, all my free time, all my friends, but my job is definitely football.
“This is my fourth season and it is such a wonderful athletic stage to be on. After 25 years head coaching in hockey, it was just the right time for me to take on another challenge.”
Even at a glance, Krueger does not project the stereotypical image of a hockey lifer.
Cerebral and inquisitive, multi-lingual Krueger can switch confidently between languages and sports.
Putting as much thought and effort into organizational development and leadership, it is those skills that have provided the bridge for him between hockey and soccer.
Despite more than two decades living and working in Europe, Krueger says he never became a supporter of any soccer club.
Growing up in Winnipeg, he had no particular interest in soccer, although there were some pitches near his home and he would sometimes “knock a ball around”.
Like most Canadian kids, Krueger’s childhood was dominated by hockey and the dream of playing in the NHL. Though that never happened, he has gone on to become one of the most influential figures in the sport in Europe.
At a time when Brexit is making headlines and the European Union is being pulled apart, Krueger is doing his little bit to help bring Europe together in a common goal.
Cobbled together with players from eight countries and coached by a Southampton FC executive, Team Europe has been the surprise package of the World Cup, posting a 2-1 record in preliminary round play to advance to the semi-finals.
“We began selecting players from 12 nations and we ended up with eight of them being represented here with their flags on their arms,” explained Krueger. “In all the games, you’ll see individual flags on their sweaters and that’s the main reason they are playing here.
“Number one, we’ve opened that door -- play for your country, play for that underdog nation, you never could challenge the big boys eye-to-eye and that’s really brought this group together on a common purpose.
“That was the first thing I said to them, ‘Play for your country first and then let’s figure out the rest’.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes
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