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Southampton FC may be employing the world's best hockey coach

Monday 3rd October 2016
Thursday evening, while Southampton's Saints languished in the Promised Land, escaping with a nil-nil draw against Israelis side Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the Europa League, their chairman was 9300 kilometres away preparing a much more spirited Team Europe for the World Cup of Hockey Finals second game in Toronto, Canada, as their head coach.

The World Cup of Hockey has little in common with the original FIFA version. Football's tournament is all-inclusive, inviting the best nations from every continent to competitions staged in various countries, and overseen by the game's governing international body. Hockey's version is owned by the NHL, has always been hosted by Canada, and is perceived, admittedly by pundits, but secretly by the league, as an alternative to the Olympic Games controlled by the IIHF.

Originally conceived in 1976 as the Canada Cup, with the game's six traditional powers, Canada, the USSR (now Russia), Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Sweden, Finland, and the USA being the only participants. It was held irregularly, then temporarily dropped when the NHL began emulating the NBA by sending its players to the Olympics. Whether designated as the Canada or World Cup, Canada has won the tournament six times, with the Soviet Union and the US the only other champions, once each.

This year's revival is being viewed as an experiment which, if successful, may give the NHL an excuse to withdraw from the Olympics to reap all the profits of a global best v best tournament themselves, much as the ECA's powerful football clubs frequently threaten to form their own European Super League or Champions League, freezing out UEFA.

The game itself does not approach football's global presence. Its ball is not round and white. It's not even a ball, rather an extremely hard black rubber disk which will fit in your palm, and that you are expressly forbidden from kicking into the goal. There are three twenty-minute periods rather than two forty-five-minute halves, and the clock stops with the referee's whistle.

Football players must pace themselves, as only three substitutions are permitted over the course of a match, even then only at a stoppage in the run of play. Hockey players skate about madly for thirty or forty-five seconds before reinforcements take their place, frequently vaulting over the boards en masse as play continues.

Football players writhe about in agony when nicked, touched or breathed upon. Hockey players, admittedly with the help of armor and helmets, careen into each other at speeds which can crumple automobiles, or throw their bodies in front of pucks traveling 80-100 mph, but immediately scramble back to their feet to stay in the play.

In addition to their armor, each hockey player is armed with a weapon. Although, modern hockey sticks, made of composites, rather than wood, and costing somewhere between two and five hundred dollars each, do tend to dissolve into shattered pieces more easily than a Donald Trump marriage. Especially when a player has an unharried shot at a gaping net.

Both games admittedly have goals and goalkeepers. Hockey's version is much smaller, however, and its goalies wear padding designed not only to protect them from inbound ballistic rubber, but to fill the goal's opening as much as possible.
Of course, both sports feature an offside rule, so club owner Katharina Liebherr and the Southampton board probably felt Ralph Krueger would fit right in as Chairman despite his complete lack of experience in football. That they were so accommodating in permitting him to accept the unexpected invitation to coach Team Europe suggest he has indeed integrated himself far better than another coach who crossed cultural borders to take an executive position in So'ton's previous regime, former England Rugby boss Sir Clive Woodward.

Woodward was said to have parted ways with the RFU because he was uncomfortable with its political environment. Unfortunately, he suffered the same difficulties on the South Coast before quickly moving on to the British Olympic Association. Sir Clive's results in charge of the Red and Whites began to suffer towards his tenure's end. The friction at St Mary's also impeded the club's progress on the pitch.

Krueger, on the other hand, has mostly gone from strength to strength in his career. He never played in the NHL, hockey's top club competition, plying his trade in Germany. When his playing career ended, he stayed in Europe to transition into coaching, his abilities eventually leading to his appointment as the Swiss National Team's head coach. Before Ottmar Hitzfeld more prominently built the Swiss into a football nation to be reckoned with, Krueger accomplished the same in hockey, threatening to crash international hockey's big six party. At Torino's 2006 Winter Olympics, he established his coaching bona fides with a 2-0 victory over the Canadians. The victory was as impactful in the hockey world as Hitzfeld's famous mauling of Vicente del Bosque's Spain in South Africa, four years later. Switzerland succeeded with a very defensive strategy, but Krueger was never a one-dimensional coach. He had won the European Hockey League with his attack-minded Austrian side, VEU Feldkirch, in 1998.

His work eventually earned him an opportunity with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, where his duties were restricted to coaching. Roster selection was left to the club's beleaguered general manager, Steve Tambellini, who gave his coach very little with which to work. In a season shortened by a labor dispute between owners and players, Krueger managed to guide the Oilers to a third-placed finish in their division, but failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the off-season Tambellini was let go, with the new GM bringing in his own man to coach the club, clearing the way for Krueger to join Southampton.

Krueger arrived just in time for Mauricio Pochettino's departure, was quickly promoted from Director to Chairman, helping to identify Ronald Koeman as the Argentinian's replacement. He has also had a hand in keeping the Saints well-stocked with talent despite the roster's continual pillaging at the hands of larger clubs.
The ephemeral nature of the St Mary's clubhouse, coupled with his own adaptability as a coach, made Krueger the ideal candidate to coach Team Europe at the World Cup. Unlike the European Ryder Cup team which has been playing every two years since 1979, barring the one-year delay caused by the 9/11 attacks, this Team Europe may very well be a one-off. It's nature, along with that of Team North America, has left many feeling the World Cup is not a legitimate international competition. If that attitude lingers after the tournament ends, the NHL will likely explore other formats.

Created along with the North America (US/Canada combined) U-23s to expand the World Cup field from the traditional six to a more manageable eight teams, Team Europe consists of players not from Sweden, Finland, Russia, or the Czech Republic. Eight less influential countries are represented: one player each from France, Italy, Austria, and Norway, and larger groups from Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, and Denmark, virtually all veteran campaigners.

Essentially, Europe is a club team inserted into an international competition. A square peg forced into a round hole. At the beginning of each match played during the tournament, the squad stood on the ice like rag-tag refugees listening to their opponent's national anthem, with no corresponding one available for them. A sort of diaspora on skates.

In the build-up to the event, Europe played two friendlies against North America's Under 23s. Comparatively, the European side averaged just over thirty years of age, the oldest in the competition. The swifter youngsters ran the greybeards ragged, claiming both games by an 11-4 aggregate.

Lesson learned. Rather than trying to match technical ability with the teams in its group, Krueger had his side park the bus and counterattack. He also motivated his charges by pointing out this would probably be their only opportunity to reach a final and contend for a world title. In the future, representing their individual countries, they wouldn't be surrounded by the talent to compete with the game's elite powers. They may not be compatriots, but they could be united in chasing an otherwise impossible dream. Their first match was a 3-0 rout of the US.

The Americans had been built to bully tournament favorites Canada, their coach and GM purposely leaving some of their less physical skill players off the roster, most notably Phil Kessel. The Wisconsin native had led the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in playoff scoring and finished second in balloting for the Conn Smythe trophy, awarded to the best player in the NHL's long, grueling playoffs. The Team USA braintrust's choice was comparable to Portugal going to the Euros but leaving home a healthy Cristiano Ronaldo. Into the bargain, Kessel has an undeserved reputation for being a prima donna, despite his record in important games, and for being overweight. Think Wayne Rooney on skates, but without the hair transplant.

When the Yanks were next handed their hats 4-1 by the Canadians, whom they had been built to destroy, and were thus eliminated from the tournament, Kessel sent out an infamous tweet from home.
While Kessel then explained to the American media he was not taking a shot at the players, rather the coaches who had not rated him, Krueger's mötley crüe struggled to a 4-3 defeat against Russia, but rebounded to make the knockout round with a 3-2 overtime victory against the Czechs. In order to reach the best-of-three final, they would have to get past the nation billed as the second-best at the tournament, Sweden, backedstopped by the hockey version of Freddie Ljungberg, goaltender extraordinaire/fashion model Henrik Lundqvist.

In the semi-final, Sweden tried to sit on an early one-goal lead. Europe came back to take a 2-1 advantage, only for defenseman Erik Karlsson to force overtime with a late equalizer. NHL overtime rules reduce the skaters on the ice from five to three, plus the goaltender, creating a great deal of space that invites furious end-to-end action usually resulting in a series of desperate saves followed by an inevitably quick goal. This time, the goal fell to Europe, and Slovak sensation Tomas Tatar, who beat Lundqvist after the Swedes turned the puck over in their own end. Having made it through to the final, the Europeans naturally drew the five-time champions, hosts Canada.

The best-of-three's first game was anti-climactic. Europe parked the bus, but, against the talent-stacked Canadians, were too wary of getting caught up ice to counterattack effectively. Canada won 3-1.

With a day off before the second game, now a must-win for Europe, Krueger made some adjustments. Meanwhile, pundits unanimously predicted Canada would be less sluggish in the rematch, expose the Europeans, and win by a more appropriate margin. The disparity between the countries was, to any hockey enthusiast not in the European dressing room, like Southampton facing Real Madrid in the Champions League Final.

What Krueger had seen from Canada, however, was a team nearly as old as his own. It's best young players were allocated to the North American U-23s. Europe, while not as technically gifted as the Canadians, were the quicker side. In the second game, the Europeans concentrated on attacking the Canadians in the neutral zone, like a high press, creating turnovers, and attacking the hosts' goal from a closer starting point, leaving their opponents less time to recover.

Unexpectedly hemmed in and frustrated, Canada turned the puck over in their own end. The towering Slovakian defenseman, Zdeno Chára, let loose a slap shot that found its way through bodies and past Canadian goaltender Carey Price. At 206 cm, Chara is a bruiser who typically only smiles at victims looking up at him from their backs. He was smiling after putting Europe into the lead, however.
During the first intermission, Canadian coach Mike Babcock attempted to make adjustments, but his players were still stymied by the Europeans' pressure. Only Price's superb goaltending kept the score at 1-0. Babcock's second intermission adjustments seemed just as fruitless. The final twenty minutes whittled down to three with the host team unable to solve the pressure, or, on the brief occasions they did, European goaltender Jaroslav Halák. To that point, Europe had owned the game. They were the better side.

Unfortunately, Europe then took a needless penalty, giving the Canadians a man-advantage, much like rugby union, for two minutes. A shot from a Canadian defenseman was deflected in front of Halák by Patrice Bergeron. Canada had equalized.

With less than two minutes remaining, Canada committed their own foolish penalty, putting Europe up a man. Canada wasn't having it, however. After defending madly as a group, Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks captain, gained possession, carried the puck into the European end, then cut across the slot--think the top of the eighteen--drawing defenders to him, and inducing Halák to move to his right. As he did, the Boston Bruins' pesky little forward, Brad Marchand, skated down the middle like a midfielder making a supporting run. Toews dropped the puck to Marchand, who fired the puck over Halák's right shoulder, against the grain, as the goalie desperately tried to move back into position. With only seconds on the clock, the Canadians were suddenly in the lead.
As much as I was rooting for Canada, having grown up there, I'd like to write Krueger found a way to rally his troops, level the contest, force overtime, and then a third, deciding game. Their effort was that inspiring. Sadly, the task was too tall.

Canada closed it out to claim their sixth Canada/World Cup title. Over the weekend, European and Canadian players will scatter to the wind, joining their club teams ahead of the NHL regular season debut on 12 October. Krueger will be on a flight back to England, and Southampton, reflecting on how close he came to leading a rag-tag band of players from a handful of second-tier hockey nations to a shocking, unthinkable world title, and, given his nature, how he can apply the lessons learned in coming so close to Southampton FC.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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