January 24, 2008

M. Icers' Krueger Steps Up for Defensive Unit

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It is a story that spans 21 years, four countries, two continents, and ends at the blue line of Lynah Rink. It includes such notable figures as Mike Schafer ’86, Uwe Krupp and Sidney Crosby. The subject of the tale is Justin Krueger, who in his sophomore year has emerged as one of Cornell’s top defensemen and a stabilizing force on the blue line. Krueger was introduced to hockey through his father, Ralph Krueger, who played professionally in Canada and Germany, and is the coach of the Swiss national team. It was while Ralph was playing in Europe that Justin was born, in Dusseldorf, Germany.
The younger Krueger grew up in Switzerland, and played there for seven years in juniors. He also played on the Under-18 and Under-20 teams for Germany under former NHL defenseman Uwe Krupp. During his time with the German national squads, Krueger played in tournaments and against teams from around the world, including Shattuck St. Mary’s, which featured then-prospect Sidney Crosby, now an NHL superstar.
“We actually tied them 1-1,” Krueger said. “They were a very skilled team.”
Ultimately, though, Krueger’s goal was to play college hockey in the United States. The only way to do that, it seemed, was to go to yet another country, the global hotbed of hockey – Canada. He obtained a tryout with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, and made the squad.
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“My dream was to play college, and I thought maybe it would be possible to go straight from there, but since no one recruits straight from Europe, I knew I would have to play juniors somewhere,” Krueger said.
While Canada provided Krueger an opportunity to be seen by college scouts, it also enabled him to make an important hockey adjustment. The rinks in Europe are bigger than in most in North America, so he needed to learn how to play on a smaller ice surface.
“It’s a lot bigger ice surface [in Europe],” Krueger said. “That’s why it was good to play juniors, especially where I played juniors. The rink was smaller than the NHL surface, so it was a huge adjustment. … It took me about half the season to really adjust to the game. … In Europe, the ice is way wider, and it gives the forwards a lot more room to cycle around … I like the game more here because it is more intense with the smaller ice surface, and I just like that intensity.”
Krueger played the 2005-06 campaign with Pentictin, where he posted 22 points and helped the Vees to the second-best regular-season record in the league. It was there that he caught the eye of the Cornell coaching staff, who recruited him to play for the Red.
“Cornell was the one that came to me in December, so it was one of the little later [schools], but I just loved that way they approached me,” Krueger said. “They were very direct, very open, nothing behind the back. It was very straightforward. Everything they promised you was the way it was. I came down for a visit in January, and when I was down here, there was not one thing I could think of why not to come here. … I was like ‘this is the place.’”
The summer before he came to Cornell, Krueger received a pleasant, yet unexpected surprise. He was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL draft.
“I was completely shocked when I got the phone call, because I looked on the Internet and didn’t see my name there,” Krueger said. “There were like three empty spots open, the last three, and they were still blank so I was like ‘oh whatever.’ Then I got the call and I was like ‘what? Are you kidding me?’”
When Krueger arrived at Cornell, the Red had just lost two defensemen who left school early — Ryan O’Byrne ’07 and Sasha Pokulok ’08. He was therefore thrust immediately into the mix, and played significant minutes as a freshman.
This year, Krueger has played an even more important role on the blue line. Classmate Brendon Nash and junior Taylor Davenport have both missed time due to injury, so Krueger has become one of the anchors of the defense. He also has notched five points.
While Krueger clearly has made the transition to American college hockey from Europe with a stop in Canada, there is one cultural aspect that is definitely far superior in Europe.
“I miss the food in Switzerland,” Krueger said. “You get used to it after awhile.”