Darcy Regier arrived 20 minutes late Wednesday to announce that he had fired Lindy Ruff as his head coach. It was fitting, because like so many of the general manager’s moves, this one was long overdue.
Among NHL types, there was a sense of amazement that Ruff has lasted so long in a head job. There’s perhaps even more astonishment over Regier’s continued employment. But that’s how it goes in sports, where GMs build flawed teams but coaches are usually the first to fry.
Ruff could have been fired many times over the last 16 years. He certainly should have been jettisoned last spring, when several of his veterans questioned his abrasive methods in an animated meeting after the team missed the playoffs.
It would have been merciful to fire Ruff then, allowing him to find another town in which to prove himself. Instead, Regier waited, as he has done so many times at the trade deadline. Ruff set about “reinventing” himself. He stuck around until the situation had become unbearable, with the home crowd booing throughout Tuesday’s loss to the Jets and Ruff fielding questions afterward about how the fans hated his team.
Evidently, that humiliation made it obvious even to the fawning owner, Terry Pegula, that it was finally time for Ruff to go. Regier said it was his decision, but there’s no way this 16-year coach/GM union could be ripped apart unless Pegula demanded it.
Still, I was surprised when it happened. Ruff had been the Sabres’ coach for so long, and become such an entrenched figure in the local sporting culture, that I thought he might coach forever. It was hard to remember the Sabres without Ruff as the coach. Marv Levy was still coaching the Bills when Ruff succeeded Ted Nolan in July 1997. I’ve covered eight Bills head coaches during that time.
Ruff became a winter fixture. He was one of us, a former Sabre entrusted with one of our civic treasures. He became a Buffalo guy, content to settle in the community. He played or coached in more than half the games in the team’s history. Ruff coached through some of the franchise’s most turbulent times, and under all four ownerships.
People forget that Ruff was reviled at first, because he took over for the beloved Nolan. Early in his first season, around Christmas, he was booed by a bunch of kids at an open skate. But he won the fans around soon enough, by winning games.
He was a first-time head coach, and people wondered if his message might be too new. At the end, it was a matter of his voice becoming too old and stale. It happens in sports, especially in hockey. It’s no disgrace. The amazing thing is it took Regier this long to see it.
It’s not always fair. But you can’t fire the roster, and GMs have more cover because they’re closer to the top of the chain. But Buffalo was more than fair to Ruff, who was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and would have been long gone in almost every other community.
Ruff got the benefit of the doubt in this town, more so than many of the men who quickly fell out of favor with the Bills. It’s rare indeed for an NHL coach to see his kids grow up in one place.
Perhaps that made Ruff too settled and complacent, like his teams in later years. Regier is ultimately responsible for the team’s soft competitive character. But Ruff had power; if he couldn’t get the kind of roster that reflected his tough guy ethos, he should have resigned.
Staying too long diminished him. Ruff talked about reinventing himself, but that should have happened sooner, and elsewhere. The record he leaves behind is uneven, filled with more failures than triumphs.
Ruff’s teams won five playoff series in his first two seasons in Buffalo. They have won a total of five playoff series in 13 seasons since then. The Sabres have not won a playoff series since 2007. As I said, the man got more than a fair bargain here.
His record is also Regier’s, of course. Despite his shortcomings, Ruff is a better coach than Regier is a GM. There has long been a belief that Regier would never fire his old friend, and that the two of them would only go out together.
That’s all changed now. At some point, a dreadful on-ice product and a vocal, disenchanted fan base will spur even Pegula to take action.
Friday will be the second anniversary of Pegula’s inaugural news conference as owner of the team. Many people remember it as the day he cried at the sight of his hero, Gil Perreault.
I recall it as the day Pegula sat with our editorial board and accused us of hurting the team with negative coverage. He said Ruff and Regier “ain’t going nowhere” and scoffed when we suggested that he should consider replacing them, or at least bring in an outside personnel man.
Pegula refused to acknowledge he had a problem. Two years later, the problem persists. The Sabres are a joke. Ruff is gone, but Regier remains. The man who is ultimately responsible for this sorry team is still in charge. But he is one step closer to the door.
There are no more excuses for Regier, or for the players who helped get Ruff fired. If this roster is really so talented, it’s time for them to show it. Regier said some changes might be in order. He needs to back it up with some significant roster changes.
Pegula perpetuated the dysfunction two years ago, when he behaved like some starry-eyed fan and threw his unconditional support to Regier and Ruff. He lost precious time. The question now is how desperately the owner wants to be right about his general manager – after handing him a contract extension on the eve of the opener.
My feeling is the same as when the new owner came to town. Regier is the root of the problem. I wouldn’t trust Regier to move this team forward. There’s no way he should have the say on the next head coach.
Regier didn’t have any answers Wednesday. He couldn’t explain why the team had struggled. He insisted that the players hadn’t tuned out Ruff. He said everyone in the organization shared responsibility, but as always, there was a sense that no one was being blamed.
Ruff is gone, but there’s still a suffocating sense of denial. Maybe the Sabres will get a jolt of energy from their coach’s firing. Players are motivated to show the coach really was holding them back.
A coaching change can lead to amazing things, as the Los Angeles Kings showed last season.
Firing Ruff is a good thing, if long overdue. Pegula might be figuring things out at last. He’s half-right, which is a start.