By Budd Bailey
Uwe Krupp was an 11th round draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres in 1983. The number of players taken that late who have a significant NHL career is very small – particularly considering that Krupp grew up in Germany, which isn’t exactly a hockey factory. Yet Krupp beat the odds and played for five NHL franchises – and won two Stanley Cups.
His first stop was in Buffalo, arriving in 1986 and departing in 1991 in the trade that brought Pat LaFontaine to the Sabres. He returned to Buffalo last week as part of “Aud Night,” a celebration of the Sabre teams of the 1980s, and took part in a small media interview session. Here’s what Uwe had to say; the questions have been shuffled and expanded a bit to provide clarity and background information:
Question: What was it like for you to come to Buffalo as a 21-year-old in the fall of 1986?
Uwe Krupp: I was obviously, in the middle of a lot of changes on every level. When I came to Buffalo, I had been living with my parents basically. Coming to Buffalo and moving away from home, playing hockey on a completely different level, it was a wide spectrum of adjustments. I’ve been saying this for a couple of days – it was special in a way because of the environment that was set up by the Sabres and the people of Western New York. It was a real safety net for me.
Q: When you arrived, it took a while for you to be cleared to play in games, so you were something of a tourist early in the season with the team. Then you went through the most turbulent season in team history – Gil Perreault retired, Scotty Bowman was fired, Craig Ramsay was hired as coach and then reassigned. You ended up in Rochester that season and won a Calder Cup. Did you think this was just another year in North American hockey, or were you overwhelmed by what was going on around you?
Krupp: I think I was so much over my head that it didn’t sink in for a long time and on a lot of levels. Scotty was a huge factor in my coming over. You just didn’t know what was happening. I remember Craig Ramsay coming in after Scotty. I have to say that my experience overall was always that the Sabres were a family. Maybe it was different for the guys that played junior, but for me it was an emotional big support network that you could fall back on. The veteran players were experienced guys – Mike Foligno, Lindy Ruff, Mike Ramsey – and they were exceptional people. They took good care of me.
Q: What did you think about playing in Memorial Auditorium?
Krupp: (It was) a really small building, a really small ice surface. It was a big change for a kid that came from Europe that’s my size. There was not enough room around the net, and I learned that very quickly. In the first couple of games, you had to get out of the way from there.
Q: Did you enjoy your time in Buffalo?
Krupp: Absolutely. The fans were great here. This was a long, long time ago for me. There were a lot of adjustments – learning how to play hockey, really, and play in North America. We didn’t have the success. We didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. We always ran into Montreal or Boston. Some piece of the puzzle wasn’t there for us, but the fan support was always there. We knew it would be a war out there, but the fans would always be there for us. It’s a hockey town.
Q: What do you think went wrong with those Sabre teams that stopped them from advancing in the postseason?
Krupp: I think we were a great group of players. We were missing that one piece of the puzzle that gave us the edge to move on to the next round. There were good players. The guys who left all had a measure of success for other teams. They won Cups and gained respect all over the league. Who knows? If we had gone further, we might not have had the chance to play for other teams. That’s another aspect from a player’s perspective. When you play for another team, you have the chance to play for a new group of people. It’s all part molding you as a person.
Q: Before you came to Buffalo, you had the chance as a teen-ager to play with a veteran named Ralph Krueger. What was that relationship like?
Krupp: Ralph was the star of the German national team. We went to the World Championships in Moscow. I was a really young player on the German team. Ralph was one of the older players. There wasn’t so much talk about the lanky, skinny, too tall kid from Cologne. Ralph was there. Every day he took a moment to say hi. It’s been a relationship since then. Our paths cross at times. I came back to Germany to coach an 18-20 national team, and I ended up coaching his son.
Q: When Krueger was getting ready to come to Buffalo to coach the Sabres, he asked you what it was like here. What did you tell him?
Krupp: I said, you’re going to love it. The hockey aspect of it, you have a good or great set-up. Everything is going to be at a high level. Knowing that he’s a real people-oriented person, it was important for me to tell him that he was going to love the people. Western New Yorkers are a special brand. They are open, down to earth. They love their hockey and love the Sabres. I think for him, he came to a great place.
He’s a unique guy who has a track record of having a very focused approach. He’s somebody who thinks before he talks. I think he’s going to mesh very well with a young team that is going to grow and get better.
Q: After you left Buffalo, you played for the Islanders, Nordiques, Avalanche, Red Wings and Thrashers. The biggest moment of your career was scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal for Colorado in the third overtime of a game against Florida in 1996. What was that like?
Krupp: It’s funny. It’s brought up from time to time. The way my life is, I don’t really relive my life very often. It’s something that I remember. Maybe I’ll sit some day on the porch, lean back, and think about it. I’m proud of it. Obviously it’s great to have won a Stanley Cup. But I enjoy what I do right now and hope there’s some good stuff to come.
Krupp now is a coach in the Czech Republic. He is considered to be the best hockey player in the history of Germany.