My first thought when hearing Lindy Ruff had been fired probably wasn’t what you expected. In fact, it wasn’t even what I expected.
Ruff’s dismissal was a long time coming, so it wasn’t a major shock when the Sabres announced they were replacing him Wednesday. He was in his 15th season, plus one during the lockout, a lifetime in professional sports. The Sabres had missed the playoffs three times in five years, six times in 14 years. The facts roll off your tongue.
Last year, I suggested that the Sabres find another head coach. It was obvious that they needed a new voice. Another terrible start this season provided more evidence that a change was in order. If it wasn’t clear already, and it was, there was no denying he needed to be replaced after the debacle against Winnipeg.
And yet when it actually happened, my first thought wasn’t about the Sabres finally making a bold move that they owed their fan base. I wasn’t thinking about who would replace him. Strangely enough, it was about how much I owed Lindy Ruff, knowing that I could never repay him.
You don’t spend 16 years around a man in a professional setting and not form personal opinions about him. Ruff unwittingly taught me more about the X’s and O’s in hockey than he ever imagined. He was patient and entertaining, a terrific coach and a better human being than most will ever realize.
Somehow, it became lost in the turmoil.
One thing that was never lost was his effect on my life. His relationship with me lasted 16 years, but my relationship with him goes back 33 years.
Ruff, you see, introduced me to sports writing during the 1979-80 season. I was 12 years old and watching a game from the standing-room only section, adjacent to the press box in Memorial Auditorium. Ruff, a healthy scratch, invited me up the catwalk for a quick glimpse. I remember, clear as day, on that day, making a career choice.
So it was strange, when he was hired in 1997, that I covered the news conference in which he was introduced. I told him the story about our encounter. He mentioned that he did the same for a few kids. Small world. And I told him, if I ever called for his firing, he would only have himself to blame.
And we laughed.
In fact, we had plenty of laughs. Ruff’s sharp sense of humor and quick wit had a way of putting people at ease. He’s a gifted storyteller and practical joker who enjoyed the daily give-and-take, especially when his team was playing well. If I had a nickel for every person who enjoyed his act, I would have retired long ago.
Still, there was always a line that separated us. We understood the inherent boundaries that came with our job titles. At times, it became blurred as we came to trust one another with information about our personal lives.
The line prevented us from becoming true friends, but we remained friendly the best we could while keeping a safe distance from one another. We had a few battles, of course. You don’t spend that much time around someone and not have differences, too.
Ruff spent 26 years, nearly half of his life, working for the Sabres as a player and a coach. He wanted to win a Cup for himself. Mostly, he wanted to win a championship, in Buffalo, for you. To me, that meant something.
We spoke numerous times about how much it meant to him. Imagine, he would say, what this city would be like if the Bills or Sabres ever won it all. If you closed your eyes and listened, he sounded like any other tortured Buffalo fan. Western New York is his home. His wife, Gaye, loves it here. His children grew up here.
For years, he was an ideal fit.
Over time, we came to understand what the other was thinking. I’ll say it again, he knew my questions before I finished asking them, and I knew his responses before he finished answering them. Looking back, I guess there was a point in which I stopped listening to him, too, the same way his players did.
Ruff’s critics had called for his firing years ago. I was a late arrival, but it had nothing to do with my childhood encounter with him or my respect for him. It had everything to do with my opinion of him as a coach. He was respected across the league for his work under trying circumstances in Buffalo.
Simply, I didn’t think he was the problem. What changed? Well, that was the problem. Not enough changed in recent years. The Sabres looked mostly the same with their lackluster efforts and poor results. It became obvious last season that a coaching change was necessary. The Sabres needed to try ... something.
Calling for his job was a joyless, uncomfortable experience. Nobody wants to see a good guy get fired, but there was no ignoring the fact that Ruff had plenty of chances.
He was out of time in Buffalo. It was clear to everybody but the people making the decisions. He was forced to endure the indignity that came with getting canned 17 games into the season.
The bigger shame in his firing was that General Manager Darcy Regier wasn’t sent packing before him. Ruff enabled Regier to keep his job for years, not the other way around, while getting average teams to overachieve. Ruff was particularly effective in the playoffs, but he needed the right personnel to get there.
It would have been interesting to see whether Ruff would have accomplished more without Regier, who should have been fired no later than 2004. There was a good chance any incoming general manager would have retained Ruff and made changes that would have given him a better chance to succeed and maybe win it all.
We’ll never know.
In the end, Ruff made the mistake of staying in one place too long. That’s all. If that’s his biggest blunder in life, he’ll die a happy man. There are no guarantees his dismissal will pump life into his sorry former hockey team. Another team will snap him up sooner than later, and he might win a Cup somewhere else.
In fact, it’s expected.
Hopefully, I’ll be there if it does.