BERNE – When the playoffs in Switzerland come to an end, it's time for Ralph Krueger and his Swiss national team.
Krueger became the general behind the Swiss bench when the country hosted its last World Championship in 1998. Going into his 12th World Championship, he's the coach with the most experience in this tournament.
Many coaches and players have come and gone since 1998. The format has changed, the IIHF logo has changed, even the trophy has changed. But a few things have stayed the same, and one of them is a line in the Swiss roster that reads: “Head Coach: Ralph Krueger”.
Let's take a closer look at the host team in conversation with its coach.
Ralph Krueger, you’re going into your 12th World Championship with Switzerland. Has it become business as usual for you, or is it always something special?
It’s always special. No tournament is the same. There are different locations, different opponents. It’s just the same game, and some things are similar, like the expectations. I really love tournaments. I’m a tournament coach. It’s always a new experience.
So you wouldn’t consider being a club coach again?
My job choice speaks for itself. I also had some good experiences before while coaching in club hockey, but at the World Championship, it’s a higher quality of play.
You had your best-ever placement on home ice in Zurich and Basle with a fourth-place finish in 1998. How did this surprise happen and why hasn't it happened again?
Of course 1998 and the sixth place in Turin 2006 were exciting. But for me, placements are a thing that the outside world likes to use. For me it’s more important that Swiss hockey has developed a lot over the years. That fourth place happened because a bunch of things happened to come together. We were just 18th the year before. Something much more important is that we are now ranked seventh in the world. It will be a challenge to defend seventh place in the IIHF World Ranking.
Since your first World Championship, what has changed in the last 11 years?
The game has changed with rule changes and the new rule interpretations. We don’t have a 1-0 score in a final game like we did in 1998. The game has opened up, and it’s more exciting. Every player has become a better athlete too now. We as a sport have developed dramatically.
And what has stayed the same?
The principles haven’t changed, like the character you need. It’s still the best team sport in the world. It’s the most honest game. You can’t be egotistical. That remains as a constant.
And the Swiss national team coach has remained a constant too.
I hope I've stayed the same as a person, but I went through good times and tough times which helped me to develop. I enjoy my job more now than in the first four, five years.
Why didn’t you enjoy your job so much in the beginning?
Everything is more balanced now. I have a healthy relationship with winning and losing. I don’t feel the pressure I used to in the earlier years. I hope I have become a better coach.
What were the good times and tough times with the Swiss?
After the good first phase we had the crash in Salt Lake City. We had a few emotional challenges which took away a lot of energy. Since then, we have been more consistent. Our highest point was the 2006 Olympics in Turin. Beating Canada and the Czechs with all their NHL stars was the highest thing for our country.
Some fans are hoping for Switzerland's first semi-final qualification since 1998.
We want to win every game and we have high expectations for ourselves. What people want outside is nice, and it seems that they believe in us and trust that we have become a better hockey nation. We’re capable of upsetting any country.
What kind of influence does your NHL All-Star Mark Streit have on the team?
I usually don’t focus on individuals. But what I can say is that he’s obviously one of the best defencemen in the world. So he surely helps the team. He showed great leadership and scored the game-winning goal against Germany. He’s a courageous player.
How do you feel after the overtime win against Germany?
Everyone expected that it would be a battle and I think it was the best game between those teams in all my years. There was great aggression in a positive sense. I think we deserved the win with the way the third period and overtime was played.
What does the victory mean for the team?
Now we can look ahead and without thinking about the other teams' results. We can now work on securing a good position for the quarterfinals.
Next up, you're playing Russia. Your last clash was a 6-0 loss in the 2008 quarterfinals.
We're just going into this game with the goal of getting points. They are very skilful, but we have one of the best defences when it comes to the play without the puck. We have a chance to win, but of course, they're among the favourites at this World Championship, and they have a strong team. And Slava Bykov knows us well.
What does you make so optimistic after the close wins?
We've had many chances to score more goals, but we didn’t capitalize. You know, Germany had very good penalty-killing in their game against Russia as well. We were a bit nervous at the beginning, but against Germany it was better than against France. We played with more pep. It’s getting better. Every tournament is a journey and the beginning is always difficult. At the moment, only the two wins count, plus the fact that we'll be at least second in the group. This is when the tournament starts.