Johnson: Former Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger settling into role as Southampton FC chair
Lifelong hockey man brings impressive business acumen to storied English soccer side
From his growing-up days during the late ’60s listening to Germany’s World Cup matches on radio with his dad to bulging the old onion bag a few times in his day as a rangy striker at St. John’s-Ravenscourt university-prep school in Winnipeg, the grand romance of The Beautiful Game has always run deep inside Ralph Krueger.
“The problem,” recalls the former Edmonton Oilers’ head coach from his office at St. Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, “is that always playing hockey, my elbows kept getting me in trouble. Coaches were always on me because of my elbows. I actually remember having my hands tied behind my back during practices.
“Old habits die hard, I guess.”
It’s all still quite new to him just now. The smell of freshly cut grass. The supporters at St. Mary’s launching as one into ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ at the first sight of Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert and the rest emerging from the tunnel. The chanting. The swaying. The unwavering devotion to the colours.
But Ralph Krueger’s a fast learner.
“Football,” says the new chairman of the English Premiership Saints, “is such a CLEAN game. A simple game. The flow, from beginning to end, from the first minute to the 90th, is wonderful to watch. And the fan experience, just . . . amazing. Especially the way the pitches are designed.
“We had 30,000 people for Norwich on the weekend. A beautiful sunny day. Every game is just a massive emotional event. There were 3,000 people here from Norwich, which is quite a ways from here. That element brings an amazing spirit to the environment, the visiting fans. Imagine the Saddledome with 3,000 people from, say, St. Louis in the stands. It just automatically brings an added electricity.
“I grew up following the German national team, but I’ve always like the English style of football. The English Premier League has been the one I’ve followed the most closely the last 15 years. It’s tough. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s direct. The referees let a lot go so you have an aggressive game. There’s no acting. Players don’t tolerate it. So when people are down, they’re down. No theatrics.”
These are encouraging competitive times at St. Mary’s. The Saints lie eighth in the Premiership table, a 4-2 decisioning of the Canaries on the weekend lifting them to within three points of the legendary Red Devils, Manchester United, and six adrift of a qualifying spot for Europe next season.
Leading them into the future, a lifelong hockey man, whose vast international resume includes coaching the Swiss national team and, for one season, that other Alberta-based NHL club situated three hours north of here.
His elite football background may come under question, but Krueger’s sports and business resume is impressive. Outside of the teaching side of hockey, he’s been a leading adviser and coach to senior management in large international corporations for the past 20 years and an active member of the World Economic Forum since 2011.
The Saints had been running a replacement search for outgoing chairman Nicola Cortese since the fall. Krueger was initially approached in early November by Swiss-born Southampton owner Katharina Liebherr, but due to his consulting commitment to the coaching staff of the Canadian men’s hockey team Team Canada at the Sochi Games, he wavered. Still, he was appointed to the club’s board in January and following the Olympics agreed to take on the role of chairman.
“At first it was a little abstract. There was a lot for me to digest. But they were extremely, extremely patient. I told them at the time I was committed to the Olympics, to trying to help Canada bring home a gold medal. It developed very naturally. They never really pressured me. They just let it evolve. I said ‘I need time’ and they gave it to me. So when I did take it on, I knew I was ready for the situation.
“I’m here mainly because of the leadership side that’s been running parallel to hockey. That’s brought me here as much as my sports experience. Obviously, I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
“More than anything, coming over to Europe when I did, to play and then to coach, you couldn’t help but make permanent contact with the game. Whether I played in Germany or Switzerland I was always in contact with football people. It is THE sport. The No. 1, everywhere. I befriended players, coaches and players and other people involved.
“As I said, I’ve always been a huge fan of the game, especially at the top levels. I haven’t missed a European Cup or a World Cup game for the last 20 years. Hockey was my logical vehicle but it’s been a real easy slide into this position. But I do feel very thankful that I don’t have to make any tactical decisions.”
No, there’ll be no managerial mind-games against wily old pros the like of Mourinho or Wenger. Those he’ll leave to the Saints’ Argentine tactician, Mauricio Pochettino.
“We’ve got a strong young manager. He and I just connected right away. I liked his style. I liked his attitude. I liked his values. And it’s an extremely value-based ownership that has given me this responsibility and we’re gonna really try and create a club environment that functions based on that.”
Needless to add, what with getting up to speed on the nuances of the Premiership and familiarizing himself with an office staff and organization that has mightily impressed him, the new man in charge hasn’t had much time to devote to his old life.
“Quite honestly,” Krueger confesses, “I haven’t watched a minute of Oilers’ hockey. I was connected with that group, but I’ve just stayed away from that. I definitely do follow the league, though. And the friendships I made during the preparation for the Olympic Games are quite wonderful. I watched a lot of hockey in the lead-up to the Games. I have to stay that in short time I became very, very close to all the players that were there. It was a wonderfully intense experience for me. So I’ve been tracking that, but I’ve been pretty busy here lately. Once playoffs kick in, though, I’m sure I’ll be paying more attention.
“I love hockey. I was having a very good time being involved in the game in a number of capacities. There’s no question it will always be a part of my life. But this is a very unique and in many different ways a very special product on its own. Tell the people in Calgary to come over and watch the Saints. It’s worth it.”
His life right now is contested not on a 200x85-foot sheet of ice but on a 112x74-yard stretch of grass, measured in three-point victories not two, in moving up a table, not securing one of 16 playoff berths.
“We’re chasing Man U,” says the Southampton chairman challengingly. “We’re three points down. That gives us something to shoot for because our final game of the season is at home against them.”
Listening to World Cup broadcasts with his dad on the radio all those decades ago or trying to keep his elbows down in during 11-aside practice at St. John’s-Ravenscourt as a teen, Ralph Krueger never could’ve imagined where fate would one day take him. Hockey, after all, has always been his life.
“Playing for the Calgary Wranglers in ’78 and ’79, I remember kicking a soccer ball around outside the dressing room. Now it seems every team has adopted that, you see it everywhere, but we were doing it way back then. It made sense with Dougie Sauter having us run up and down in the Corral. I remember kinda chilling with the ball, passing it around.”
Krueger pauses a moment, wistfully remembering the road from there to here.
“Who’d have thought, all these years later,” he muses, “that a hockey-playing kid with the Calgary Wranglers, kicking a soccer ball around at the Corral to loosen up, would one day be working for Southampton FC?
“But, I suppose, that’s the beauty of sports.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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