Europe will face Canada in the World Cup of Hockey final

Team Europe celebrate

Team Europe beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime , and will face-off with Canada in a 3-game series final for the World Cup of Hockey. Two goals from Detroit Red Wings left-wing Tomas Tatar, including the overtime winner, helped the European team to victory.

Head coach Ralph Krueger spoke to press afterwards;

RALPH KRUEGER: I’d like to begin by thanking the NHL and the NHLPA for creating Team Europe and for giving us this opportunity. The second organization I need to thank is Southampton Football Club. We had a game which ended at 12:45 p.m. before we played here today. We were watching it down in the locker room. We beat West Ham 3-0, and my owner in Southampton Football Club has been very supportive of this process, and I’m very grateful that they allowed me, especially my owner, to be here, so I just wanted to throw that out there.

You’ve had a number of questions here in the past few days about Anze Kopitar not doing much defensively. Have we overlooked Tomas Tatar?

RALPH KRUEGER: Well, there’s so much happening here within this group as far as players stepping up at different times to take us to victory, and today it was Tomas. He reacted to a game that he wasn’t pleased with against Canada. He thought he could play better. It’s been that way — there’s so many side stories developing in my head right now, if I started speaking about names, I’d go on for an hour because of all of that.

And Tomas stepping up with his spirit today and those two goals, really — he created that whole OT goal. When you see the fight on the wall against those boys that were a lot bigger than him, that’s where it all was initiated. It ends up in the net, and we just continually found ways to do that, and that’s the beauty of this team.

How are you feeling right now personally taking a special team like this now to the Finals against Canada? 

RALPH KRUEGER: Well, personally, first and foremost, just so pleased that these peripheral countries in the world of hockey have had an opportunity to compete with the best in the world for the first time in their life and to truly believe in being competitive on the way to a semifinal, and then the overtime showed the belief in the group to get to the final. That’s not possible when these players show up alone at tournaments. They’re forever fighting relegation in world tournaments. They’re forever fighting just to get to Olympic Games, forget about competing for anything at them.

And to be in a best-on-best tournament for these countries that are important for the game of hockey, that are future-growth countries for the game, I’m just so pleased for all of them.

A lot of the presidents are down there from the eight countries we’re representing, but I think we’re representing all the rest, which is about 12 to 13 countries in Europe that cannot play in the top six, and I think that the pride in that group right now is large.

I came in here saying that we hoped that a few young children back in those countries get inspired by what we do and become great NHL players in 10 years or 12 years, and if that happens when I’m old and retired, I hope that it was a part of this tournament that did that.

How much do those guys in that locker room, how much does that drive them, just the fact that so many of them have never had this chance to win a best-on-best tournament like this?

RALPH KRUEGER: Well, everybody thought that having eight different countries was going to be an Achilles and that we had no chance to play here as a result of that. Again, I said right from the start that these are all National Hockey League players, and why it means a lot to them is all of them had to do something special to get into the National Hockey League. They wouldn’t be here — Mats Zuccarello came in late, Mark Streit came in late, players like that who had to fight their way in because they were from countries that weren’t respected in terms of producing NHL players. We’ve just got a whole locker room full of guys that have had to fight to get here and had to fight to stay. But in the end they’re NHL players and they’re great NHL players with amazing experience and eight Stanley Cup rings, and it’s just coming together, and it’s certainly for us an advantage.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Because we have no past and we have no future, we are really capable of being in the now. I think the better we do, the lower the chances might be that Team Europe gets invited back. That’s a joke. But it’s the opportunity in this that we’ve tapped into. We’ve said from the start, “Play for your countries. When you hear the Swedish anthem, it’s yours. When you hear the Czech anthem, it’s yours. When you hear the Canadian anthem, it’s yours.”

And the players have bought into that. The only thing we’ve asked them to do is connect on the ice. So when you go out on the ice, connect. Play together, play together with the puck, play together without the puck, fight for each other, but play for your countries, and it’s taken us a long way.

Just as everyone predicted, you’re in the final. I know you’ve been in sports a long time. Is there anything you’ll take back — you mentioned Southampton in your opening today. Is there anything you’re going to take out of this tournament with you, something new that you’ve learned, some revelation that you can take back to Southampton?

RALPH KRUEGER: Well, the reason I took this project on when I was asked by the NHL — the NHLPA approached me to be the head coach over 13 months ago was, first of all, it was a scary project and it was going to be really difficult, so I knew I would grow as a leader. So the growth has been amazing just in the process. I’ve already learnt a lot that I’ve taken back into my other leadership role, and it will continue to be that way. But at the moment we’re focused already, I have asked the coaches to go and start putting video together, and we need to stay in the moment here.

It’s important we don’t get giddy. We want to give Canada and the world a really good final. So it’s not a time for me to assess what I’m going to take with me. We still have hockey to play here, and we want to be competitive, and we want to make it difficult for Canada to win the World Cup, and we’d like to get in the way of that.

Frans Nielsen said, I’m going to paraphrase, We may not be the best team in this tournament but we may be the smartest team in the tournament. Where have those smarts translated onto the ice, from your perspective?

RALPH KRUEGER: Yeah, many people would look at our average age of over 30 and they would say we’ve run out of gas here at this point in September. I mean, we’ve played our seventh game now with a lineup that’s been fighting hard for every point, and I think that the experience of the group expedited the process for us as coaches. It was amazing how in the adversity of the kids whopping us 9-1 after four periods we were able to make adjustments that made sense. Everybody that thought they might come in and beat Team Europe that’s going to be pretty and bangled and put on a show, we realized real fast, thanks to the kids, that we can’t play that way.

We began with a very simple concept with the puck actually. It’s amazing after you’re down 9-1, we didn’t speak about defense, we spoke about puck management. We learnt that and built our defense on the heels of that.

But I think that the experience these guys — so many players in this room understand what it takes to win at the highest level, to win at the Stanley Cup level, and they’ve never been able to do it with a team in a national team concept or in a tournament of this nature. Once we had the conversations going, it was fabulous to experience the process.

But truly it’s our experience has been an advantage in the short tournament, in the warp speed of this tournament. It’s hard to believe that we’re only eight days into the tournament, and we’re in the final.

How would you characterize your relationship with Mike Babcock? 

RALPH KRUEGER: You know, Mike — when I was fired in Edmonton sitting on my daughter’s bed on Skype, Mike called me 12 hours later to ask me to come to the Olympic Games with Canada, so that’s Mike Babcock. We’d run into each other just peripherally — actually until then, Tom Renney being on his staff helped in that I’m sure Tom said, “There’s a guy that might be available for the Olympics.”

After that it was really intense actually. We would run together. We would speak about hockey nonstop together, and it was the best coaching clinic I could go through with Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Mike Babcock. From the draft in New York right through the Olympic Games I was with them.

The only thing that was sad about it was I didn’t know where I was going to use it because I was in football, and so that learning process with Mike and his staff is really a lot of what I brought into Team Europe. And we have a very friendly relationship. We’re both fanatic water skiers, so we compare our best water ski results on a regular basis, and that’s all we’ve talked about when we run into each other here was how he did on his last pass.

Do you know his weaknesses?

RALPH KRUEGER: I mean, there’s opportunity there for us that we’re going to try and find. We certainly didn’t show our best game against Canada.

You spent 12 years of your life coaching the Swiss program, which had to beat the odds constantly. You did it in Torino beating Canada. How can beating Sweden today compare with some of the things you did with Switzerland?

RALPH KRUEGER: Well, I’d really compare this because the Swiss team was all in and was attempting to always upset teams, but I thought here with this group, I’ve never internationally been able to coach such a skilled and smart group of hockey players as far as their experience and their talent that — we’ve been talking about the skill and talent of character, too, which is unmeasurable at times, and that’s what makes this group really able to go all the way to the World Cup and have a shot at winning it.

So the difference is just the depth of talent, the depth of skill, and otherwise the spirit is full on. But the experiences from Torino or Vancouver, where we took Canada to penalty shots, have definitely helped me in bringing a belief into the team that on any given day the game of hockey is very, very honest. In the end having the skill and the talent will not beat somebody that works harder than the other team, so that’s what we have to fight for here now.

We’ve talked for a long time without mentioning Halak. How much was he a factor in today’s result? 

RALPH KRUEGER: I mean, Jaro has been just an absolute leader in the room. Everybody wants to play for him. From day one he grabbed the ball. We had an open competition to start out with, and when Andersen fell away, Jaro just smoothly stepped in and grabbed the ball, and he hasn’t dropped it or let anybody else take it. I think his personality; his experience also from the past with Slovakia and in the National Hockey League has helped us. He’s been outstanding. He’s been absolutely fantastic. Everybody in this room knows we wouldn’t be here without fabulous goaltending, and a world-class performance by Jaro Halak has helped us a lot.

Has working with these players and the success you’ve had to this point stoked your fires to maybe think about coaching in the NHL again some day? Is there any circumstance under which you would consider trying to get back in the game at the NHL level? 

RALPH KRUEGER: Again, I came in here committed completely to Southampton Football Club and the future of that organization in my role. You can never say never, but at the moment I’m very proud to be back in hockey at this level and to be competing. We are just having so much fun in our room, the coaches, the players, the whole group is enjoying it, and I am, too.

But my real life is my commitment to Southampton Football Club at the moment.

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