VANCOUVER - If he could, Ralph Krueger would do it all over again. The journey and the wait that came with it was worth the payoff he's about to indulge in.
Having achieved about everything else there is in this ultra-competitive, worldwide business, Krueger is about to pen the most historical highlight to his accomplished coaching resume.
He just had to wait longer than most for the season to get the green light.
"Coaching has been my life for 23 years," Krueger said on the eve of his NHL head-coaching debut. "To do it in the National Hockey League is the greatest honour you can have in this profession and I'm very proud that I have this opportunity. There's no question that this is the pinnacle of what coaches strive for. More than that, I'm really feeling a great spirit with this team right now. With a good start in a shortened season, my goal is to feed it. It's very exciting.
"We're the young guns and we're out to make the League uncomfortable."
Krueger has always been a leader and is a world-renowned public and motivational speaker who recently appeared at the World Economic Summit in Europe. While the NHL was on his radar in the past, off in the distance in some respect, it wasn't a focus of his until recently.
"It's really been an organic process," Krueger said. "I never stood up at one point and declared that I wanted to be a National Hockey League head coach. I always wanted to get better as a leader and always develop. After coaching in three Olympic Games, there really wasn't anything else out there other than coaching in the NHL. Well, it was either that or go work in another industry. There was nowhere else to go, and I'm the type of person that always wants a path and a place to develop. Being here now feels natural and I really feel prepared, but I realize there are going to be challenges.
""I'll be honest, I get adrenaline in tough situations. I get really pumped," he added. "I'm the kind of guy that likes to keep the picture small and I won't go off track too much. I'm not a dreamer in that sense. I'm a realistic -- an optimistic realist, I call myself. I feel it's always important to be optimistic, but also to be honest and realistic in anything you do. We're not going to be climbing up the ladder as quickly as we'd all like to be. There's going to be hard resistance from every other team in the NHL, but I'm ready for that challenge. We all are."
Krueger was named the 11th head coach in Oilers history on Jun. 27, 2012. From 1991 to 1998, the Winnipeg, MB product was the general manager and head coach of VEU Feldkirch in Austria's First Division. Between the Austrian, Alpenleague and European titles, nine championships were won under his leadership.
In addition and in his decade-plus-long tenure as head coach, Krueger helped the Swiss National Team climb eight spots to seventh overall in the IIHF World Hockey Rankings.
Under his guidance at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Switzerland gave Team Canada all they could handle in round-robin play. The end result was, however, a 3-2 loss in a shootout. While the Canadians went on to win the Gold Medal, Switzerland left Vancouver with an eighth-place ranking.
It was Krueger's last kick at the can in a head-coaching role. Until now, and in the same building.
"That building has become quite symbolic to me," laughed Krueger, acknowledging that the Oilers ended the 2011-12 season in Vancouver as well. "I'm not so sure I expecting it after all that happened, but I'd say it's appropriate that we're starting the season at Rogers Arena. I've had success there in the past and that Vancouver Canucks team is one that we're going to have to get past if we want to advance in the Northwest Division. There's no point in running or hiding; we're going to hit the challenge head-on."
Having inherited Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, Krueger isn't of the mind that skill alone will help turn the Oilers into a powerhouse. If this past week is any indication, the 2012-13 edition will be one of the most diligent, detail-oriented and hardest-working teams in the NHL.
Split into a pair of 35-minute segments, Krueger's practices were evidence of that. The players were expected to understand and carry out their assignments so little (if any) time was wasted outlining drills and dulling the pace by kneeling at a bench-side white board.
"Training camp was very important to set the tone, set the pace, set the team spirit and the direction we're going in," Krueger said. "Under the circumstances, we feel our week of preparation went as well as we could have hoped.
"We've got 48 games here where we want to get enough points to be in the competitive sphere in the Western Conference and get there as quick we can, early."
Last year, Krueger was in charge of special teams -- a certain bright spot amid a disappointing season in which the Oilers secured a third-straight lottery pick. The power-play vaulted to third in the NHL with a 20.6-percent success rate under his instruction.
That was without Yakupov and Schultz. Both will be in the lineup Sunday and both will be anchoring separate power-play units in their NHL debuts.
"It's a privilege, a leader's dream to have this opportunity," Krueger said. "Nail and Justin have had a good week and have integrated themselves well. Both have done nothing but convince us even further that we're on the right track. There's no question that the addition of those two will make us a better team -- a much better team.
"The unique situation here is that I get to watch them and help them through it all. As it happens, all three of us are making our NHL debuts (Sunday). It's another sign that we're all in this together, growing and building as one to help the Edmonton Oilers get to the next level.
"That's what you're going to see all season. It's the process of building, together, and as one."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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