EDMONTON - Ralph Krueger's coaching career began 23 years ago. But considering he'd already become the greatest mentor of all, the father to his son, Justin, he was already well versed in the challenge of guiding someone's future.
"I remember when I was three years old, he would always bring me with him to the rink to watch his practices," Justin said, reminiscing of the days when Ralph played with Dusseldorf EG of the German Bundesliga.
"It was great. I could hang around the rink all day and, after practice, go out on the ice. My dad got me out there as early as he could. He showed me pictures of me wearing his jersey and it was hanging down at my feet like a big bed sheet. I'm surprised I could even move."
Justin has missed only one Oilers game this season. He says nothing has changed in his father's approach -- and he would know, considering the 26-year-old has been a longtime student of Ralph's one-of-a-kind coaching philosophy.
Since getting his start at the Jr. level in Austria, Justin played one season with the BCHL's Penticton Vees and four with Cornell University in the NCAA. He then returned to Europe to play one season, his first as a pro, with Bern of the Swiss League.
He's now a stay-at-home defenceman with the AHL's Charlotte Checkers, patiently waiting for his chance to make it in the National Hockey League.
"He always looks at a challenge and says, 'What's wrong, what's the problem here and what do we need to do to correct it?' He never avoids the negatives," said Justin, a Dusseldorf native. "He's a solution-focused guy that's excellent at motivating you to get there."
Just as he's been at the head of a bench for the past 23 years, Ralph has been at the head of his family, coaching Justin through life and providing the support, understanding and leadership he's needed in every possible situation.
"This past summer, one of my uncles died -- and he wasn't much older than my dad. That was a big issue for the family, you know?" Justin said. "A lot of us got down and had a real hard time dealing with it. We all knew it already, but it was amazing to see how my dad could be such an incredible leader off the ice.
"He was that for everyone, including me. He didn't avoid the negatives or the sadness of the situation, but once the funeral was over and it had all sunk in, he was the person that was there to help everyone in the family get through it. He's a leader on the ice as a coach, in the family and any way possible in life. A lot people that are leaders aren't leaders everywhere like my dad is."
Beginning in 1991 and lasting a full seven seasons, Ralph was the general manager and head coach of VEU Feldkirch in Austria's First Division. Feldkirch was a bottom feeder at the time but, between the Austrian, Alpenleague and European championships, nine titles were won under Krueger's leadership.
As Justin explains, it was that success in Austria that led to Ralph's next challenge with the Swiss National Team, where a similar story was authored.
"Switzerland was inconsistent at best and the program didn't have a clear identity," he said. "When my dad started, it would have been a miracle, unheard of, if they won or even came close against the top teams like Canada or Russia."
When Ralph began in 2000, the Swiss National Team was ranked 15th in the world. By the time he left 10 years later, the program had become a respectable one, moving up eight spots to No. 7 in the IIHF World Hockey Rankings.
"As time went on, especially when he was done, it was almost expected to get close and perhaps even beat those teams," Justin said. "That started happening. They came up with a couple big wins and gave Canada a pretty good scare at the Olympics in Vancouver. That game (3-2 shootout loss) showed they could compete with any team in the world and that they belonged on that stage.
"My dad meant so much to that whole program, and still does," he added. "He was there so long and had such an impact on the team and the players' careers. He left a big mark on the core of Swiss hockey players. Switzerland's going in the right direction and I feel like he was the guy that pushed them that way."
Ralph is considered by many to be one of the game's most innovative minds. The Winnipeg, MB product is as much of a forward-thinker on the ice as he is off of it, having written the best-selling book, "TeamLife: Over Setbacks to Success." The book was published in German and French, but never in English.
Without ever having read a single word, the men in the Oilers locker room are privy to the message on a daily basis anyway. The book's core principles are focused on motivation, winning, discipline and bouncing back stronger after defeat.
The coach is also a world-renowned public and motivational speaker, recently appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos where he was part of a leadership council.
"Energy is a word he uses a lot, but it's so true. He brings so much energy, especially into other people," Justin said. "It's all about getting the most of someone and having them reach their potential. He's good at it. When you come to the rink every morning and your coach is there with such a good spirit, getting everyone's energy level high by being excited about the challenges ahead, it can only be a good thing.
"Just watching my dad in the NHL, I'm so proud of him. I talk to him quite a bit and he's as passionate as I've ever seen him. I'm glad he's there and it seems like the perfect place for him to be. The happiness and energy he shows when he talks about the organization and the team is amazing."
Selected in the seventh-round (213th overall) in 2006, Justin is still waiting for his shot in the NHL. He says he's ready, and he would love nothing more than to get a chance against his dad's Oilers one day.
"It would be a pretty intense battle," Justin laughed. "As close as we are, we're pretty crazy and competitive about any sport. We're serious about who wins and who loses. If our golf games are any indication of how intense we can get, I can't imagine what it would be like in an NHL game."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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