From NYHJ: Sabres finally pull trigger on Ruff
by Dave Ricci/Correspondent
BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was a move that was both long overdue and shocking at the same time.
On Feb. 20, Lindy Ruff, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, was officially relieved of his duties as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. After 15 seasons as coach and, before that, another decade as a captain and standout defenseman, the 53-year-old was done after spending more than half of his life connected to the Sabres.
“I miss it already,” Ruff said, during his goodbye press conference on Feb. 22. “Most people wouldn’t, but I watched hockey the first night. It’s hard. It’s a tough feeling. It’s been a strange feeling. I have to keep it going. I love the game.”
Sabres general manager and longtime friend Darcy Regier, who for years stood firmly behind his coach, through thick and thin, made the move official the day after a bad 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on home ice — a game that saw a sold-out crowd of 19,000-plus fans cascade a chorus of boos onto the team from every corner of the First Niagara Center.
Regier hired Ruff as the 15th head coach in Sabres history on July 21, 1997. The pair led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, falling to the Dallas Stars in six games.
Ruff coached the Sabres to four Eastern Conference finals and two division titles, established a franchise record of 571 wins as head coach, and won the Jack Adams Award in 2006. He also placed second for the award the following season.
But with the longest-running GM-coach combination in the NHL, there was always a feeling that Ruff and Regier were a package deal. If you wanted to get rid of one, you had to get rid of both. The GM was always such a strong supporter of his coach, and even owner Terry Pegula had said the words, “Ruff ain’t goin’ anywhere,” and bristled when the media suggested otherwise.
But after starting the season at 6-10-1, Regier was forced to make a very tough decision.
“Extremely difficult,” Regier said during a press conference just hours after telling Ruff he was let go. “But this is professional sports. He understood it. He was extremely professional. It’s a tough day. It really is.”
Ruff ran practice as normal that morning. He spoke with the media and talked about the commitment it was going to take from everyone to right the ship. But he was on borrowed time, as Regier would soon deliver the news face to face.
“When I saw him, I said, ‘I know,’ ” said Ruff. “I said, ‘Don’t say you’re sorry. You’ve been my biggest backer all these years.’”
“I think the prevailing factor here was where we are? Where we’re going?” said Regier. “Conversations I had with Lindy. Where he felt the team was. I think last game was, quite honestly, a tipping point. It was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions, and that had a lot to do with it as well.”
Regier tabbed Ron Rolston, the coach of the team’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, as Ruff’s replacement for the remainder of the season.
Ruff’s lone request was to say goodbye to the team before the Sabres’ bus to Toronto pulled out on that Wednesday afternoon. He said his goodbyes to a stunned group of players, who then exited the bus, one-by-one, to shake his hand and wish him luck. Several players hugged him.
“It didn’t surprise me (he wanted to say goodbye). That’s the type of guy he is,” said Sabres winger Thomas Vanek. “It’s not what I expected when he came on the bus, but I think he did the right thing by saying goodbye to us.”
The common belief was the players were sick of Ruff. That his message had grown stale. Players were tuning him out. But the immediate player reaction was just the opposite. The players said they saw Ruff as a guy who never stopped trying to do his best to help the team succeed. His firing left the players feeling he had paid the price for them not getting the job done on the ice.
“It was very hard (to say goodbye),” Vanek said. “I think we had our ups and downs but overall we had a very good relationship. He demanded a lot out of me, which I enjoyed. He wanted to win. There’s no quit in him. It would have been nice if we could have accomplished that goal together.”
The Sabres dropped their first game under Rolston to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Two days later, they fell below rock bottom with a dismal 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders in Rolston’s home debut as coach, where they were booed off the ice.
So, what to make of Ruff? Many fans in western New York expressed a sadness to see him go and wished it could have worked out differently. Ruff wasn’t just a player and coach. He was deeply woven into the fabric of the community. He held true the hard-work, blue-collar mentality that Buffalo embraces.
Ruff and his wife, Gaye, make their home in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence with their four children: Brett, Eryn and twins Madeleine and Bryan. He has been a strong figure in the community, doing endless hours of charity work. Though he’s from Alberta, his home without question is Buffalo.
And fans embraced this. So much so that when young Madeleine underwent surgery in 2006 to remove a brain tumor, the outpouring of love and support the community gave the Ruffs was overwhelming. “Get Well, Madeleine” and other signs of support hung all over the HSBC Arena.
“The fans of western New York are number one,” Ruff said. “They really came to the forefront when I dealt with my daughter’s medical condition. (They) got us through a real tough time in our lives.”
Ruff always seemed to be in the shadow of the previous coach, Ted Nolan. Whenever things got bad, some segment would inevitably bellow for the return of Nolan and his “hardest working team in hockey” motto.
In 2003, the Jim Carrey movie “Bruce Almighty” — set in Buffalo — had a scene filmed inside the arena during a Sabres game. Fans held up signs that read, “We Want Nolan!” — the surname of Carrey’s character. When asked what his reaction was to the crowd’s chants, Ruff flashed a smile and said, “I saw the signs and got nervous. I thought Ted was back in town.”
His rigid, defense-first system boxed players into a certain way of playing that often stifled their natural gift for the game. He rarely gave his backup goalies a show of faith. Young players such as Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Jhonas Enroth, Marcus Foligno (Buffalo, N.Y.), Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis all have seemed to hit a wall under his watch.
The biggest nail in Ruff’s coffin might have been his old-school practice of calling players out in the media. Last April, former Sabres forward Derek Roy, who was traded to Dallas for Steve Ott in the offseason, publicly voiced his dislike for that habit.
In his farewell press conference, Ruff thanked all the players — past and present — who played for him, as well as the owners. Most of all, he thanked the fans for their support to him over the years, and how that support made Buffalo a special place to coach and play.
“It’s a place I call home (and) always will call home,” Ruff said.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal.