November 29, 2006

Krueger Shores Up M. Hockey’s Defense

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The Swiss, infamous for their neutrality in global conflict, have provided the men’s hockey team with a valuable weapon.

From Germany and Switzerland to Canada and, finally, Ithaca, rookie defenseman Justin Krueger is poised to help the Red defeat the giants of American college hockey.

If only he could find some decent Italian food.

“I love Europe but I don’t think too much about missing it,” Krueger said. “Except for some cultural aspects, like food. The Italian dishes are way better there.”

Krueger’s first year at Cornell is also his first year living in the United States. He was born in Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine in western Germany. He spent his early years there before moving to Feldkirch, Austria and later to Davos, Switzerland. In addition to English, Krueger speaks German, French and Swiss-German. He also is familiar with Latin.

Yet, while these language skills may ease Krueger’s transition into the literate Cornell student body, Ithaca is still rarely confused with western Europe.

“I grew up traveling around a lot,” Krueger said. “So going to new places has never been that big of a deal for me. I’ve never felt homesick.”

On the ice, the Krueger’s adjustment has been seamless. In 10 games for the Red this season, the 6-2, 205-pound freshman has recorded two assists and continues to be a key component of the squad’s young defense. His first point in a Cornell uniform was an assist on junior Raymond Sawada’s goal in the Red’s 5-2 victory over Yale on Nov. 4.

Krueger’s size and ability to handle the puck fit the mold of past successful Cornell defensemen.

“[Krueger] is the kind of prototype that we’ve had [at Cornell],” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “He skates well and he’s very smart.”

Krueger’s physical play also discredits some widely held beliefs about European hockey. In Europe, most amateur and professional teams use Olympic-size ice surfaces — rinks that are wider and longer than their North American counterparts. The increased skating space has led to a perceived European emphasis on speed rather than physicality.

To compound matters for Krueger, the first North American team he played for was the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League last season. The Vees are renowned for skating on one of the smallest rinks in the BCHL.

“It was a challenging year [in the BCHL] out of Europe,” Krueger said. “You have to make quicker decisions and adjust to the hitting and the increased pressure.”

However, with 10 penalty minutes on the season and a penchant for bruising opposing forwards, few would accuse Krueger’s game of being purely finesse.

“[Krueger’s] been around the whole hockey scene,” said sophomore Taylor Davenport. “It doesn’t change a whole lot depending on where you’re from. As a defensive partner, I couldn’t ask for much more.”

For Krueger, Cornell’s reputation — both as an academic institution and a college hockey powerhouse — tempted him away from pursuing a professional hockey career in Europe. Like many of his teammates, Krueger’s ultimate dream is to play professionally across the pond in the National Hockey League. That dream took a step closer to reality in the 2006 N.H.L. draft, when he was selected in the seventh round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I could have stayed in Switzerland and gone professional, but I knew if I did that, it would be it,” Krueger said. “I would lose my opportunity to get an education. I know I need a lot of time to develop [as a player], and college is the best way to do it.”

For now, however, Krueger has put aside his memories of Europe and is looking to make an impact on Cornell’s ECACHL title hopes.

“I want to work as hard as I can and help the team as much as I can,” he said. “I’ll always do what is best for the team.”

That is, as long as the food improves.