By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TORONTO — Mike Babcock scoffs at the notion that he simply shows up to coach the Canadians and they keep winning best-on-best games, a streak that has run to 14.
“I think that’s what you guys think,” he bristled at reporters.
Whatever anyone things, Babcock has helped Canada win gold at the last two Olympics and he has the team rolling into the best-of-three World Cup of Hockey finals against Team Europe, with Game 1 on Tuesday night.
His counterpart, meanwhile, is simply happy to have a shot to coach hockey again. Ralph Krueger wasn’t sure if he would have another chance to be behind a bench after being fired a few years ago by the Edmonton Oilers via Skype while sitting on his daughter’s bed. He was let go after the Oilers went 19-22-7 during the lockout-shortened season.
While still reeling from the blow, he got an opportunity to bounce back — from Babcock. He asked Krueger to help the team as a consultant at the Sochi Games and they became friends, attending non-hockey events at the 2014 Olympics and swapping water skiing stories in recent years.
“Mike called me 12 hours later to ask me to come to the Olympic Games with Canada, so that’s Mike Babcock,” said Krueger, a Canadian who has known Babcock since 2004.
Now, they’re matching wits as competitors in a tournament in which Canada seems to have everything to lose as a heavy favourite and Team Europe has everything to gain. Europe’s surprising performance has some wondering if the next time an NHL team has an opening, Krueger might get another call.
“You should never say never about anything in life,” Krueger said. “Circumstances change, but I definitely did not take this job hunting for a job.”
Krueger is chairman of Southampton, a Premier League soccer club. He ended up there by following an unusual path.
When he became a coach in the Austrian Hockey League in 1994, Krueger was looking for another line of work.
“I was so frightened about the future and being unstable in coaching so I started doing motivational speaking and that took me into the corporate world,” he recalled. “I was then invited by the founder of the World Economic Forum to be one of the members of the leadership council. I was the only non-academic. There were 50 academics and me.”
That role led to his job with Southampton. When Team Europe was looking for a coach, its search started and ended with Krueger because of the relative success he has had in best-on-best tournaments.
Krueger coached the Swiss at three Olympics, including in 2006 when he helped them to a sixth-place finish — one spot ahead of Canada, a team they beat 2-0 — and a fourth-place showing at the 1998 World Championships.
Team Europe forward Frans Nielsen said he wouldn’t be surprised if NHL teams start showing interest in Krueger.
“I think he has shown in this tournament how smart of a hockey brain he is,” Nielsen said.
He will be trying to figure out Canada this time, a team that hasn’t lost a best-on-best game that counted under Babcock since the U.S. stunned the Canadians in the preliminary round of the Vancouver Games six years ago.
“I get up every morning, and I do the best I can, and work as hard as I can to prepare my team the best I can,” Babcock said. “Try to love the guys the best I can, try to make them feel good and make them better players. And I go home and love my family and I come here and do it the next day and over time things have worked out good.”
Babcock is the only coach to win gold at the Olympics and World Championships along with a Stanley Cup, which he helped the Detroit Red Wings hoist in 2008. He also led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003. His current team, the Maple Leafs, are in a rebuilding phase.
Even though Babcock oozes with confidence these days, he acknowledged accomplishing the things he has were beyond his wildest dreams while he was growing up and climbing the coaching ladder.
“You grow up in Saskatoon or you’re a coach at Red Deer College, you probably don’t think you’re going to coach Canada’s Olympic team,” he said.